Pioneering electric heart saves its first life

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The first person to receive a permanent electric heart was recovering in hospital in Oxford yesterday after the unique operation last week. Abel Goodman, 64, was selected for the operation from 25 volunteers after it was decided that his age and kidney problems ruled out a normal heart transplant.

The retired film producer received the new device in a privately funded operation at the John Radcliffe Hospital. It is hoped it will provide a permanent solution for Mr Goodman, despite his being given a few months to live after being diagnosed as suffering from heart failure.

Until recently, mechanical hearts were designed to provide a bridge for seriously ill people forced to wait for a transplant because of a shortage of donor organs. The development follows a series of operations at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge, where the first permanent artificial heart was implanted last summer, though the patient, Arthur Cornhill, 63, a former stuntman, died nine months later.

Mr Goodman , a father of two, was reportedly sitting up in bed the day after the three-hour operation, and on Friday he celebrated his birthday with a cake presented to him by the surgical team. On Saturday he suffered a slight stroke and was said by the hospital yesterday to be "as well as can be expected''. Mr Goodman is reported as saying: "I felt I had absolutely nothing to lose with this. I weighed up the options. My life was seriously at risk, and this seemed the only justifiable way forward."

The grapefruit-sized unit, which is virtually silent in comparison to earlier versions, which were extremely noisy, is powered by two 1.5lb rechargeable lead-acid batteries. It comprises a chamber which contracts and fills with blood, then pumping it throughout the body. The rate at which the air pump works responds to physical exertion, thereby allowing patients to lead a virtually normal life.

Steve Westaby, the surgeon who carried out last week's intricate operation, said around 500 patients had received similar implants in the US, but these had been used as an intermediate device for those waiting for human hearts.

It is the first of what is hoped to be a series of three similar operations funded by Frankie Vaughan, the singer, and his friends, who have raised pounds 750,000 between them. They launched a fund-raising campaign a year ago after learning of the pioneering work. In 1992 Mr Westaby operated on Mr Vaughan after he ruptured an artery, an operation which the singer said saved his life.

Mr Westaby, who had been involved in US research on artificial hearts for a number of years, said this was the first time such an implant had been inserted with a view to it remaining inside the patient permanently. "There is a very long history of artificial-heart implants and Papworth Hospital have done implants using a completely different device. That device is extremely noisy and for other reasons, we think, far less ideal than the device we used ... Our device was modified to make it suitable for long-term implantation and on the same day the operation was carried out, a professor in Berlin did the same operation in the same context."

The team at Oxford is also collaborating with the American Robert Jarvik on developing another implant called the Jarvik 2000. This tiny pump, which is the size of a thumbnail, could be the first implant able to be inserted inside children and is expected to be ready for use within two years.