Friday, March 22, 2013

May I Have an Atom Heart, Mother?

My dream heart
I was treated to an echo cardiogram at CRMC on Wednesday. If you're not a heart patient, you might know the "echo" as the Ultrasound test performed on pregnant women. "Hooray -- it's a boy." or maybe "Good God -- triplets."

My echo was scheduled to determine the shape of my heart following a Christmas heart attack and an early January angioplasty and stent placement in my LAD artery (a.k.a. "The Widowmaker"). I "presented late" (as my doc puts it) due to the fact that I was futzing around with our family doctor who didn't know what he was doing so my heart muscles were damaged. Ideally, heart attack patients get to the ER ASAP so the blockage can be cleared or so the docs can get to work on a bypass. I was late to the ball. But I got my stent, a dozen or so medications, 36 weeks of cardiac rehab and lots of TLC.

Wednesday's echo showed that my heart still had some healing to do. The docs think I should have a defibrillator implant but I'm a bit unsure. I'm going to get a second opinion from heart docs down in Colorado.

Or I might get an atomic heart. The story, according to The Atlantic:
In 1967, the National Heart Institute and the Atomic Energy Agency began a ten-year effort to develop an artificial heart powered by plutonium-238. The atomic hearts would have pumped human blood with the energy provided by the radioactive decay of that isotope. The effort failed thanks to technical challenges, intra-governmental infighting, and the souring of the public mood about both medical devices and atomic energy, but it remains a fascinating episode at the confluence of two grand American dreams.

This is the story told by Shelley McKellar, who teaches the history of medicine at at the University of Western Ontario in the most recent issue of the quarterly journal Technology and Culture.

The Federally funded programs continued for a decade, sometimes at cross-purposes, and they foreshadowed the rhetoric that came to surround later attempts at creating other types of artificial hearts in the 1980s. There are lessons to be learned, McKellar implies, about how people receive a particular technology changes along with the social and regulatory environment. Ideas that make sense one decade can seem totally ridiculous ten years later.

But, you might be asking yourself, "What in the hell was anyone even thinking trying to stick a radioisotope generator into a human being's chest cavity?"
 Because, that's why.

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