The Final Frontier

Cardiac care boldly goes forward with mechanical hearts


At the conclusion of the bar fight, his heart mortally wounded, he had every reason to believe he was a goner.

He did, however, have two things going for him: the incredible ingenuity of cardiologists and cardiac researchers who dedicate much of their lives to helping people live longer; and the fact that he wasn’t a real person. He was Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Jean- Luc Picard. He wasn’t going anywhere.

In an episode, Jean-Luc’s physical heart was replaced with an advanced implant. And as often happens in the world of science fiction, we are watching the future of technology— in this case, of cardiac transplantation.

“Captain Picard has a fully transplanted, artificial heart implant in the series. With fully internal, long-lived batteries, he is able to live a completely normal, adventurous life, and that is the near future,” shared Dr. Holger Buchholz, director of the Pediatric and Adult Artificial Heart Program at the University of Alberta Hospital’s Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute and Stollery Children’s Hospital. “We aren’t there yet, but with the right support and funding, it could be as close as five to 10 years from now.”

In order to realize the potential of Jean-Luc’s fully artificial heart, University Hospital Foundation (UHF) donors must continue to support progress that may seem, at times, unreal. And with heart disease as one of the leading causes of death here in Alberta and across the country, that push cannot come too soon.

“We are very dependent on the public’s support,” said Buchholz. “Through donations made to the UHF, we were able to offer patients new and updated technology and equipment, and it immediately improved their quality of life. The future of more new technologies is within reach.”

Artificial cardiac implants don’t face the same challenges as traditional organ transplants. The devices are made from materials the body doesn’t typically reject, and they are ready to use when needed — no wait-list required. They can provide a better quality of life for heart failure patients, quickly.

When Buchholz first came to Edmonton in 2005, it was during a period when he was flying around the world, teaching surgeons how to perform cardiac implants.

“Artificial heart implants were still new then, especially for babies, and the technology was slow to develop. Then the public got involved,” explained Buchholz. “Through a New York Times article, word got out about a surgery I participated in on a baby boy using a specialized pump, called ‘the Berlin Heart’, in place of a donated organ. The article generated interest, and the public helped push the field forward.”

Buchholz ended up staying in Edmonton, excited to develop a new program and take advantage of the wave of interest in the local medical community to advance cardiac care.

“At the time, I had the feeling everyone in Edmonton had the same vision: to lead the field of cardiac care internationally. The whole province wanted to create something special.
– Dr. Holger Buchholz

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