The Mechanical Heart celebrates 50 lifesaving years

American Heart Association
Tuesday, 22 October 2002

The American Heart Association, General Motors and Wayne State University recognize anniversary of revolutionary machine

When Dr. Forest Dewey Dodrill developed a concept for a machine to detour blood while he repaired patients' hearts, he asked an improbable source to design it General Motors engineers.

Their efforts, funded in part by the American Heart Association, revolutionized cardiac surgery when doctors in 1952 used the Dodrill-GMR (General Motors Research) Heart Machine to perform the first "open heart" surgery to save a man's life.

Today, though bypass-assisted heart surgery is routine, doctors still use some of Dr. Dodrill's concepts. Since his "mechanical heart" invention presented in 1954 to the Smithsonian Institution for display doctors have used heart-lung bypass machines to help save millions of lives (about 753,000 open-heart procedures were performed in 1999, the latest year for which figures are available).

The invention was one of the first and many that resulted from research funded by the American Heart Association, which has spent more than $2 billion in the area since 1949. "The Dodrill-GMR Heart created the opportunity for the advances in cardiac surgery we have witnessed over the past several decades, including bypass of narrowed coronary arteries, repair or replacement of damaged heart valves, and repair of congenital heart defects," says Robert Bonow, M.D., president of the American Heart Association.

Dodrill, a surgeon at Wayne State University's Harper Hospital in Detroit, partnered with General Motors on an innovation that looked like an old Cadillac V-12 engine. But the six cylinders on each side of the "engine" were separate chambers for pumping blood.

"To develop this revolutionary machine, many GM engineers and researchers volunteered their time to support this great medical advancement," says Joel Bender, M.D., General Motors' corporate medical director. "Today, GM continues the tradition of these selfless employees by funding research so medical breakthroughs like the Dodrill-GMR can be possible."

Like classic automobiles, the heart-lung machine has a life of its own, says Larry Stephenson, M.D., professor of cardio-thoracic surgery at Wayne State University School of Medicine and a medical historian. "Although new technologies continue to be developed to correct heart problems, for the foreseeable future the heart-lung machine is the mainstay for cardiac surgeons."

The American Heart Association is helping fund current research to support new techniques being developed in the area. Other important medical advances and discoveries from American Heart Association-funded research include CPR, bypass surgery, pacemakers, artificial heart valves, microsurgery, life-extending drugs and new surgical techniques to repair heart defects. The organization has also funded the research of three Nobel Prize winners.

"Among the next generation of heart surgery advances are techniques that repair the heart while it is still beating and pumping blood," Bonow says.

Eliz Greene, age 36, heart survivor and national ambassador for the American Heart Walk, knows the magnitude of such medical advances. While seven-months pregnant with twins, Greene went into cardiac arrest. She received CPR and was revived by a defibrillator. Soon after, doctors performed a caesarean and then emergency heart surgery.

"My doctors said I wouldn't have survived traditional heart surgery, so they did a new procedure, without a heart-lung machine, in which they operated on my heart while it was still beating," Greene says. "I was up and out of bed 17 hours after surgery to see my new twin girls. This innovation proves that, like 50 years ago, heart research is critical and needs to be supported."

To contribute to future medical discoveries in heart disease and stroke research, you can participate in the American Heart Walk. Over 750 American Heart Walk events around the country raise funds for heart and stroke research, with over 650,000 family, friends and co-workers participating. Call 1-800-AHA-USA1 to find out how you can participate in your American Heart Walk.

The American Heart Association spent about $382 million during fiscal year 2000-2001 on research support, public and professional education, and community programs. More than 22.5 million volunteers and supporters carry out its mission in communities across the country. The association is the largest nonprofit voluntary health organization fighting heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, which annually kill about 960,000 Americans.

For more information, or to contact American Heart Association, see their website at:

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