A man who lived for more than six months without a heart died at the weekend, ending a remarkable experiment in medicine that could pave the way for improving treatment of heart disease in the future. Jakub Halík, a 37-year-old former fireman, had been fitted with two artificial pumps after doctors treating an aggressive tumour had removed his heart altogether.
For 27 weeks Jakub Halík defied the laws of biology, becoming one of the few people to have lived for any significant period of time without a heart. Similar operations have been carried out in the past, but Mr Halík was only the second in history to have survived with mechanical pumps completely replacing his heart.
He also lived for much longer than the first patient - a man in Texas, who died a week after his operation in December 2011. Mr Halík lived for more than six months, and was on the list for a heart transplant when he developed liver failure. Doctors say the pumps were working perfectly and his body had not rejected them; they are now waiting for the results of an autopsy to establish exactly why he died.
The pioneering surgery was carried out by Prague’s Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine, under the direction of the institute’s chief cardiologist Professor Jan Pirk. Professor Pirk spoke to Czech Television’s Události programme following Mr Halík’s death.
“It was an incredible experience, not only from a medical point of view, but a human one as well. Jakub Halik was a wonderful guy; he truly won the hearts of all who came into contact with him every day. As far as the science is concerned – it’s helped us better understand how we can treat people with similar conditions. Personally I’m convinced that such pumps will be used in future to replace hearts that are failing – especially the heart’s left chamber.”
The operation was carried out on April 3rd, after doctors discovered an aggressive tumour in Mr Halík’s heart, a cancer that was not responding to radiotherapy. They ruled out a standard heart transplant at the time as the drugs required for recovery cannot be taken by cancer patients. So Mr Halík was presented with a simple choice – live for a few months with an inoperable tumour, or risk groundbreaking surgery that seemed to some more like science fiction. He appeared at a news conference after successful surgery.
“Basically I didn’t have an alternative. The doctors told me I only had about a year to live if they didn’t remove the tumour, so I decided to fight. To be honest I hardly notice I haven’t got a heart. My body works in exactly the same way except my heart doesn’t beat and I haven’t got a pulse. That’s the only difference. Otherwise my body’s working pretty much as normal, like a healthy, normal human being.”
After a while Mr Halik was able to walk around and reportedly even use the hospital gym, although he had to carry a battery pack with him wherever he went. He told reporters it was his dream to make a full recovery and return to the fire service; sadly that didn’t happen. He leaves behind a wife and child.
Professor Pirk and his team, however, say Jakub Halík’s miraculous six months without a pulse has provided invaluable information about how the human body can work without a beating heart. The Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine began applying pumps to failing hearts in 2003, allowing people to live long enough to receive a full heart transplant. Now the pumps have been used to replace the heart altogether, opening up life-changing possibilities for people with heart conditions.