Robert Jarvik: An Innovator with Heart

Robert Jarvik, MD, 2018 MDEA Lifetime Achievement Award winner, recalls defining moments of his medical innovation career.

Robert Jarvik, MD, remembers Dec. 2, 1982, as vividly as if it were last week. He was 36 at the time and a device he designed, the Jarvik 7 artificial heart, was about to be implanted into a human patient for the first time.

That patient, a retired dentist named Barney Clark, had been at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City for about a week, and his medical team, lead by William DeVries, MD, planned to put off the surgery just a little while longer in hopes of getting Clark as strong as possible for the operation. But Clark wasn't getting stronger.

"He deteriorated rather fast and Dr. DeVries did not think he would live through the night, so they scheduled the surgery for the soonest they could get it done, which was something that began around 10 at night," Jarvik told MD+DI. "There was a very, very large snow storm that hit just about that time."

In what seemed like no time at all, the streets of Salt Lake City had accumulated between six inches and a foot of snow.

"The University hospital is uphill from the city so I remember distinctly trying to get there and wondering if I was going to miss it because of the snow," Jarvik said. "But I did get there on time and most of the team was there and it became a very intense scene. You can imagine, the middle of the night and everybody is operating on this one patient, with this snow storm going on and having it unclear whether all the people that are critical to the training have been able to get there. But it turned out okay in the end."

The Clark case drew worldwide attention as it was a first-of-a-kind procedure, and the device kept Clark alive for another 112 days. Some medical ethicists at the time criticized the procedure because Clark ended up suffering complications that included convulsions, kidney failure, and memory lapses. It was nonetheless a defining moment in the field of heart failure treatment.

Jarvik's work paved the way and beat the odds so that the SynCardia total artificial heart to finally reach the market, not to mention ventricular assist devices like the Jarvik 2000 left ventricular assist device (LVAD). Today he is chairman and CEO of Jarvik Heart Inc. in New York.

"The logistics of these cases are very important and if you have an artificial heart patient or a VAD patient that you've concluded needs the operation, you shouldn't delay at all," Jarvik said. "All that happens if you wait is other complications emerge ... you have to be decisive and you have to face a lot of unknowns."

Innovating with Heart

Over the years, Jarvik has picked up a reputation for his compassion toward patients with heart failure, and patients who receive a Jarvik device.

O.H. "Bud" Frazier, MD, the heart surgeon who performed the first human implant of the Jarvik 2000 LVAD and served as a co-investigator in early trials of the Jarvik LVAD, talked about Jarvik's bedside manner in a video on Jarvik Heart's website.

"I was always very impressed with his personal involvement with the patients and his personal concern about their welfare," Frazier said in the video.

It's a sentiment that was echoed in the same video by Bartley Griffith, MD, a heart surgeon and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

"Rob has been able to continue to be a bedside caring person," Griffith said. "He loves to come and visit a patient who has one of his pumps. He doesn't do that for any kind of publicity, he really cares about the patients."

Patient privacy laws make it difficult for Jarvik to reach out to patients after they've received one of his devices because he's not part of their clinical care team, Jarvik told MD+DI. But, he said, patients frequently reach out to him.

"It's been very rewarding," he said.

That personal involvement and care is evident when Jarvik talks about Peter Houghton, the first patient to receive a Jarvik 2000 for permanent use, rather than as a bridge-to-transplant device. Houghton lived with the permanent implant for more than seven years, and was in "very good shape most of that time," Jarvik said.

"He traveled to numerous foreign countries, he did things like rent a chalet in Switzerland and go vacation there for a couple of weeks at high altitude," Jarvik said. "He really enjoyed a very good life. He used to say that [those years were] his 'extra life' because he knew that he wouldn't have had it without the device."

Houghton died in November 2007 at a hospital in Birmingham, England after a severe nosebleed led to kidney failure. Jarvik said he believes Houghton's death could have been prevented if his doctors in Birmingham had called his clinical team at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England.

"He was a friend, and mistakes that happen still hurt," Jarvik said.

Lessons from a Medtech Luminary

When asked what words of wisdom he would share with young medtech engineers and innovators, Jarvik said it's important to maintain a strong grasp of what you want to pursue so that you can follow it through, even during the challenging moments.

"Usually, you can't do the best job on the first try, and usually, there's a learning curve and that certainly applies to engineering," Jarvik said. "So, in light of the expectation that the first attempts are going to be less than optimal, I would advise young folks to go for the very best that they think they can get to, and realize that later on, they may find some better ideas. But get started and go for it."

MDEA Lifetime Achievement Award

Jarvik will receive the MDEA Lifetime Achievement Award during a ceremony at MD&M East on June 12 in New York City. 

Each year, the UBM medical content team selects an industry pioneer to receive the MDEA Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of the crucial role he or she has played in medical device innovation. This award goes to an individual whose contributions over a long career in the medtech industry have had a significant and demonstrable impact on technological, business, and cultural advancements in the world.

Past recipients of this award include Robert Fischell, Manny Villafaña, John Abele, Dean Kamen, Robert Langer, Thomas Fogarty, and Alfred Mann.

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Congratulations Dr. Jarvik. As one of the young engineering students whom you inspired in 1982, I reflect back and realize how dramatically you influenced my career and in turn all of the students I now teach. (Fred Rogers would be very proud of you too!) Jim Antaki