Like a science-fiction story come to life, 25-year-old Stan Larkin managed to live for over a year without a real heart, proving that the will to survive and the power of modern technology can indeed work wonders.
Larkin was playing basketball in Ypsilanti, Michigan, when he suddenly collapsed on the court. He was brought to the hospital and diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD), a disorder that causes irregular heartbeats that could lead to cardiac arrest. A defibrillator, which works to issue electric charges that fix the abnormal heartbeats, was put in his heart. Larkin was 16 years old at the time. He was told everything would be fine as long as he did not participate in strenuous activities, including basketball.
The defibrillator worked well for a time, but it soon became clear that Larkin would need a transplant, as his ARVD had continued to advance and both sides of his heart had weakened. He was put on the extremely long list of patients needing a transplant, too.
A cardiac surgeon at the University of Michigan Hospital thought that Larkin could probably live without a human heart until he received a transplant. On November 7, 2014,Larkin was hooked up to the “Big Blue,” a 418-pound machine that serves as a “gas station” while a patient waits for a transplant. This machine pumps compressed air through two tubes attached to two valves meant to replace both left and right ventricles. The “Big Blue” was a massive machine though, and while it did keep Larkin alive, he was also bound to it.
In June 2014, the FDA approved a smaller, compact version on the “Big Blue” which they called the Syncardia Freedom Portable Driver. At 13.5 pounds light, this device functions exactly the same as its bigger predecessor, but can fit in a backpack which Larkin had to carry around. Larkin was fitted with the upgrade and could leave the hospital, but he also had to get used to the change.
It was kind of stressful at the beginning, because I had to get used to the noise. It was a lot of noise 24/7, the heartbeat,
Larkin said. “As I got used to the noise, I could finally go to sleep. After that, I had to get used to carrying three extra bags with me, everywhere I went. I had to have all this stuff every time I moved.”
The Freedom Portable Driver can be plugged into any normal wall socket and even a carjack, and comes with a display panel that shows the patient’s heartbeat and cardiac output.
However, the device still has its drawbacks. Larkin can’t pick up his daughter and had to take quick, careful baths because the device in the backpack was electrical. And 555 days later, Larkin finally received a real heart when his transplant pushed through.
“I’ll probably run a few pickup games, but not right away,” Larkin said. “I haven’t taken a shot yet without the backpack hooked up. I just want to put the heart to use.”