When Dr. William DeVries implanted a plastic heart in Seattle dentist Barney Clark, 61, the surgeon crossed more than a medical threshold. Other breakthroughs make news; replacing a heart—the province of poets and lovers, the very symbol of humanity—made headlines for days. Like putting a man on the moon, the magnitude of the event owed much to technology but more to its emotional resonance with perceptions older than memory.
DeVries, 39, the lanky, soft-spoken chief of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City, sees the event as one small but important step for mankind. “I was surprised that people think it’s as big a deal as they think it is,” he said before the operation. “People put in artificial joints, pacemakers, artificial valves and artificial arteries. It’s just another artificial way in which man has made his life a little bit better, and that’s how I look at it.”
It was also not the first artificial heart implant in the U.S.: In 1969 and again in 1981 Dr. Denton Cooley implanted artificial hearts in patients awaiting human heart donors. (Both patients, who survived for several days before receiving transplants, died shortly thereafter.) But Barney Clark’s plastic heart was the first intended as a long-term replacement for the real thing.
Every day the courageous Clark lived after the operation was a medical triumph. “I see myself as an extremely competent technical surgeon, and I feel that I do the best surgery that anybody can do,” says DeVries. “If I didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t work on a patient.”
His involvement in this case grew out of meticulous preparation. Dr. Robert Jarvik of the University of Utah’s Artificial Organs Division spent 11 years developing the polyurethane-and-aluminum Jarvik-7 heart and testing it on sheep and calves. During the past three years DeVries and his surgical team practiced implanting Jarvik hearts in animals and cadavers. A hospital panel that included physicians, a psychiatrist, a nurse and a social worker evaluated several potential recipients to find one who met the university’s stringent, FDA-approved specifications: terminally ill, too old for a transplant, and psychologically sturdy enough to cope with the prospects. Those included not only failure but, if the operation succeeded, being permanently tethered, by two six-foot plastic tubes routed through the abdominal wall, to the Jarvik-7’s shopping cart-size pneumatic power plant.
From the start, the new heart was not perfect. Complications began during the original seven-and-a-half-hour implant—the blood flow from one side of the Jarvik-7 appeared insufficient and a spare left ventricle was snapped into place—but the team worked calmly and efficiently, while Ravel’s Bolero played on operating room speakers. “Bill doesn’t show tension much,” says a nurse. “He doesn’t shout, stomp or throw instruments like some do.”
Yet DeVries, a devout Mormon and father of seven, clearly felt the stress of his job. Many patients have died. “When the disease is smarter than you are, that’s a real slap in the face,” says DeVries. “I tend to internalize it, but you’ve got to get your frustrations out. I go for a long walk or run until I’m tired. I try not to kick my dog.” He lives five minutes from the hospital, but still finds the job pulls him away from his wife, Karen, and the kids. “At times I’ve had to sit with a dying patient when I should have been at a Boy Scout or Cub Scout meeting. That’s a conflict that I don’t enjoy at all.”
Another conflict he didn’t enjoy was when a patient who didn’t meet the heart implant program’s medical requirements threatened to sue the FDA, and DeVries’ 12-year-old daughter came home crying because a teacher had asked her why her father would not break the law and operate to save a man’s life. “Things like that really offend me, really hurt me,” says DeVries.
Away from the hospital, the former college hurdler, who earned his M.D. at the University of Utah, loves athletics of any kind (“I never met a sport I didn’t enjoy”) and junk food (“I like French cooking, but it’s hard to beat a Quarter Pounder”). But it’s clear he doesn’t like to be away from the operating room for long. “I feel like I’m helping people,” says DeVries, “and that keeps me going.”