Beat Poet

It doesn’t look like the kind of building where they’d be making artificial hearts. The other tenants in the sixteen-story former printing factory at 333 West 52nd Street are mostly low-key entertainment companies: Elissa Myers Casting, Broadcast Video Rentals. But up on the top floor, Dr. Robert Jarvik is set to do just that, 100,000 at a time.

Jarvik, who invented the artificial heart implanted in Barney Clark back in 1982, moved to Manhattan in 1987 and began tinkering on a new device that would assist the heart rather than replace it entirely. The Jarvik 2000 is a shiny, thumb-size, bullet-shaped pump that fits into the left ventricle of a patient’s failing heart and takes over much of the burden of moving blood through the body. Unlike the Jarvik-7, which required either a large bedside console or a fifteen-pound briefcase compressor for power, the Jarvik 2000 is connected to a less-than-two-pound battery the patient can wear on a belt beside the device’s low-tech controls (dial up to the maximum 5 for hiking; down to 2 for sleeping). Jarvik and his wife, Parade columnist Marilyn vos Savant, the CFO of Jarvik Heart Inc., came up with the once-futuristic name in 1988. “We didn’t think it would take until 2000 for the first patients to be treated,” says Jarvik.

His office wall is covered with framed magazine covers from the eighties depicting Jarvik as the whiz-kid doctor at medicine’s frontier. Now, at 54, he has thinner and grayer hair, but he may be poised to hit those covers again. His six-employee company has just received major private financing from former U.S. surgical chairman Leon C. Hirsch. In June, doctors in England implanted the Jarvik 2000 into the heart of Peter Houghton, 61, who had been deemed too old for a transplant and given six weeks to live. Five months later, he’s walking two miles a day.

Typically, things in the U.S. are moving more slowly. For now, the Jarvik 2000 has FDA approval only as a temporary “bridge” for a small test group of patients in Texas waiting for heart transplants. It could be another few years before the Jarvik 2000 is approved as a permanent fix. For the same $100,000 it now costs to treat someone with congestive heart failure during the last year of life, Jarvik says, his device can rehabilitate a patient to a normal lifestyle and keep him or her alive for years. “It’s miniature, it’s simple, it’s user-friendly,” he says. “It’s designed to avoid infections and blood clots, which have been a problem with other devices. It’s also totally silent.”

Many of the components in the prototype Jarvik 2000, which was tested on 80 animals before it was placed in the first human, were manufactured by a Pennsylvania aerospace company. Jarvik plans to hire twenty computer programmers and engineers so that everything can be done in-house. “We’re going to evolve, hopefully, into a large medical manufacturer,” he says. But why here, in midtown west, when so much medical work is done on the East Side? That two-mile-a-day gold standard doesn’t just apply to heart patients: “I walk to work every day,” says Jarvik, who lives on the Upper West Side. “It’s not a bad commute.”

Beat Poet