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OBITUARIES | Peter Houghton

Longest-living recipient of artificial heart worldwide

December 07, 2007|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Peter Houghton, the world's longest-surviving recipient of an artificial heart, died Nov. 25 at a hospital in his home city of Birmingham, England. He was 68.

The cause of death was multiple organ failure, but physicians had to disconnect the battery on the artificial heart before he could be declared dead.

Houghton received the Jarvik 2000 artificial heart in June 2000, three years after he had suffered a massive heart attack caused by viral flu. The pump was implanted by Dr. Stephen Westaby at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford -- the first time the pump developed by Dr. Robert Jarvik had been tested in a human.

Westaby said six other patients in whom the pump had been implanted had not survived nearly as long as Houghton.

The Jarvik pump is designed to support the body's blood circulation until a donor heart becomes available for a transplant, but Houghton's age and medical condition ruled him out as a transplant recipient.

At the time of the surgery, his heart had deteriorated to only 10% of normal function, he was barely able to walk, and doctors had given him only a few weeks to live.

Two weeks after the surgery, he went for a two-mile walk.

He was very active in charity work during the seven extra years of life he had received, participating in a 90-mile charity walk, hiking the Alps, traveling around the world to support heart research, writing two books and raising millions of dollars for other victims of heart attacks.

But in the last few months, his deteriorating condition had forced him into a nursing home and eventually into the hospital where he died.

Before his heart attack, Houghton was a healthy, broad-chested man -- a former amateur rugby player. Trained as a psychologist, he worked at Middlesex Hospital, counseling patients who were on the verge of death. Doctors thought that experience helped make him a good candidate for the experimental procedure.

The Jarvik device is a small turbine pump, about the size of a man's thumb, that is implanted next to the heart's left ventricle to help circulate blood. A thin wire runs up the chest and out of the head behind the ear so that the device's battery pack can be attached. Although Houghton suffered several infections in the battery socket, the head is considered a safer and more hygienic spot for it.

The battery pack was carried in a camera case slung over his shoulder.

The device cost about $120,000 and the surgery to implant it another $400,000 to $600,000.

The surgery had one unexpected benefit: By easing the workload on Houghton's heart, it permitted the heart to partially recuperate. In the last year, his heart had returned to about 30% of normal function, allowing him to be off the device for brief periods, such as when changing the batteries.

That became important when a thief grabbed the camera case while Houghton was shopping in London. When the battery was disconnected, a loud alarm went off, startling the thief and causing him to drop the case. Houghton had the presence of mind to reconnect the device.

Before the surgery, doctors had told Houghton that he had only a 30% to 50% chance of survival, so he put all of his affairs in order, had last rites performed by his priest and said goodbye to his friends.

"My only fear was that it would work but I'd be left as a 'vegetable,' " he later told the Birmingham Post. "I'd made my peace with everyone so I didn't want to be a burden."

In his last years, Houghton said the artificial heart had left him feeling coldhearted or even heartless, like the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz." "I've become less emotional, quite, quite substantially less emotional," he said in an interview with ABC News.

But Houghton's cardiologist, Dr. Adrian Banning, said the change in emotions probably had more to do with the prospect of facing death. "I think it is probably to do with the emotional impact of taking such a . . . step into the unknown," he told ABC.

Houghton is survived by his wife, Diane. They had no biological children, but had served as foster parents to 11 over the years.

thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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