Syncardia: Hearts in a Backpack


Unlike the male nipples, our third eyelids, and other vestigial structures of the human body, the human heart is absolutely essential to staying alive… or at least it had been.

Although synthetic hearts have been around for decades, they are becoming more and more sophisticated. The leading company in this industry continues to be Syncardia with their Total Artificial Heart. Although patients have no pulse, a steady stream of oxygenated blood continues to flow throughout their bodies thanks to the technology.

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Stan Larkin with his Syncardia device.

One of the most recent headlines featuring this technology comes from the University of Michigan and the story of 25-year-old, Stan Larkin. In 2014, Stan became the first patient in Michigan to be discharged from the hospital with one of Syncardia’s Total Artificial Hearts. This came only after spending months in intensive care alongside his brother Dominique, who shares the same condition known as familial cardiomyopathy.

A Last, Last Resort

Familial cardiomyopathy is actually one of the leading causes of death in athletes, causing the heart to fail suddenly and without warning. Although the brothers were on the donor waiting list for years, doctors felt like they were running out of time to perform the transplants. Then in 2014, both Stan and Dominique had their hearts removed and were fitted with Syncardia devices.

Luckily, Dominque (younger of the two) received a successful donor heart transplant, at which point Stan would go on another 555 days without a human heart in his body.

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Dominque Larkin (left) and Stan Larkin, both received Syncardia devices while awaiting heart transplants.

“They were both very, very ill when we first met them in our intensive care units,” said Jonathan Haft, the surgeon behind the transplant at the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center. “We wanted to get them heart transplants, but we didn’t think we had enough time. There’s just something about their unique anatomic situation where other technology wasn’t going to work.”

Although there are devices available to help with partial heart failure like implantable defibrillators, Syncardia is used when both sides of the heart fail.

Syncardia and the Future

Stan was given a backpack utilizing the Freedom portable driver, allowing him to return home and live his life as normally as possible. Doctors and his family were unsure how capable Stan would be with his Syncardia device, yet he quickly exceeded expectations by continuing his love of basketball and spending time with his daughters. Although the device wasn’t made for an active lifestyle, Haft commented that “Stan pushed the envelope with this technology… he really thrived on the device.”

As we enter a time when we can wear our hearts in backpacks, 3D-print bones, and edit the genes of living people, modern medicine looks more and more like magic everyday. For the families who have had their loved ones saved by technology like Syncardia’s Total Artificial Heart, the future has arrived for the better.

Author: Connor Smith

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