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'Artificial heart saved my life'

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Peter Houghton was just weeks away from certain death when doctors offered him a radical new treatment - would he like the world's first mechanical heart?

His own was failing fast. Each day was such agony that Peter had become reconciled to the prospect of death.

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"They told me I had just three weeks to live," he said.

"I was breathless, I had gout in three limbs and I had weeping sores all over my body and I was huge with water retention.

"It was too painful to live. I had too much difficulty sleeping and I was too itchy.

"I did not want to die, but I had reconciled myself to it. I had said my 'thank yous' to all the people I should and I had got my affairs in order. I was ready for dying."

Weakened heart muscle

Peter, now 66, from Birmingham, suffered from idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, a disorder in which the heart muscle is weakened and cannot pump blood efficiently.

This causes decreased heart function that affects the lungs, liver, and other body systems.

He first became ill after a serious bout of flu, followed by a heart attack and for five years his heart began to decline.

"It was a slow process by the end of 1997 I had to give up work and by 2000 I was house-bound."

Trained in palliative care, he knew he was dying, but said he had not been aware just how close to death he was.

Doctors said he was unsuitable for a transplant, in the unlikely event a suitable organ became available, because he had only one functioning kidney following an earlier kidney infection.

But then a doctor friend of his put him in touch with Dr Stephen Westaby, a consultant cardiac surgeon, at the John Radcliffe Hospital, in Oxford.

Artificial option

He was working on the Jarvik artificial heart, developed in the US by Dr Robert Jarvik.

The pump, the Jarvik 2000, uses a turbine to increase the power of each heartbeat.

It sits alongside the chamber of the heart which pumps blood around the body.

It is powered by an external battery linked to the device by a wire entering through the skull and passing down the neck. The batteries need to be changed every eight hours.

Because the Jarvik 2000 is much smaller than other similar devices it can be left in permanently, provided it does not fail mechanically.

But Peter Houghton was oblivious to how ground breaking his operation was going to be.

"Steve (Dr Westaby) said it had been tried in animals and had been used as a bridging device in humans prior to transplant, but the full import of it just did not dawn on me.

"All I was worried about was whether I would become a vegetable and how I could cope with the operation and whether it would fail.

"It was a difficult decision, but one of the lads my wife and I fostered said 'you are going to die anyway, so why not have a go and do some good for others by helping the programme'. So I did.

"I did not really realise its medical significance until it was announced to the world and then when I went to a press conference at the John Radcliffe Hospital there were about 50 photographers there."


That was in June 2000. This month he celebrated the fifth anniversary of his operation.

Peter does not know how long his mechanical heart will last, but says he has thoroughly enjoyed each minute of his extra life.

"Now I am full of beans and work full time. I pretty well live a normal life, although I daren't go swimming in case I electrocute myself.

"Even when I go in for a shower I can't get the battery pack wet.

"But I am extremely grateful to have had this opportunity. It is like a miracle"

Peter is so grateful to the surgeons who helped him that he has helped, through the 'Heart Failure Foundation', to raise £3m and hopes this will help give others the chance of the extra life he has enjoyed.

Expensive treatment

Only six people in the UK have had the operation that Peter had because it is an expensive treatment - costing £60,000 for the device alone and between £100-200,000 for the hospital care.

But now the government is considering clinical trials to see whether the treatment could be available on the NHS.

Dr Westaby, who raised about £2.5m himself to get the pioneering project started, said each implant was comparable in cost to a heart transplant.

Only about 160 hearts become available each year for transplant - but 650,000 people need a new organ.

Therefore, to treat all those who would potentially benefit from a Jarvik would cost the NHS a fortune.

Dr Westaby said: "If everybody who could not get a transplant was eligible for these then the economics would be difficult.

"But my feeling is that they will be available on the NHS before too long."

He said Peter's pioneering operation had allowed huge advances in cardiac work.

"We have found that if we use the device to rest the heart then the heart can get better.

"We are also trying to develop a heart pump for babies and children."

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Unfortunately heart transplant recipients don't live much longer than five years...mechanical or otherwise... no.gif

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