A Never Beating Heart: A Glimpse into Never Ending Life

Early in the spring of last year Craig Lewis, a 55-year-old Texas native, found himself confronted with a life-or-death situation. After battling with a complicated heart condition leading to the build up of abnormal proteins in his heart, Lewis was told by doctors that he had just 12 to 24 hours to live before his heart would give way entirely. Where all other heart-supporting technologies proved to be insufficient, Lewis’ only chance of survival lied in removing the heart completely—and putting machinery in its place.

The device, called a “continuous flow” pump, works by using blades to supply a continuous flow of blood to the entire body. As a result, the patient has no heartbeat, and as Lewis’ doctors state, “by all criteria that we conventionally use to analyze patients,” he would be considered dead. Although able to walk, read, and otherwise completely functional, Lewis’ EKG is flat-line, and a stethoscope would reveal no heartbeat. Although tested extensively in cows, Lewis was the first human subject. While the device worked flawlessly, Lewis ultimately died 5 weeks after it was installed as his condition led to the corrosion of his kidneys and liver. A short video highlighting Lewis’ experience can be found below:

While Lewis’ doctors claim the device is the “waive of the future” his story left me with more concern than excitement. Lewis’ story represents the natural degradation of the body that occurs with aging, and science’s extreme intrusion into that process. While Lewis’ body was ready to give up, Lewis was ready to fight back, and with technology on his side, he won the battle. With the invention of this new device will individuals always have the option of “choosing” to live? When our organs, one by one start to erode, will technology advance to the point to which we can just replace them with shiny metal versions? It’s already been proven that modern advances in technology have significantly improved human life spans. It seems as though heart-replacement technology seeks to made life endless.

Craig Lewis’ story can furthermore be seen as indicative of America’s overall view of death as not a natural and inescapable ending, but a fearsome process that must be stopped at all costs. Americans seems to think that death is an injustice, a force to battle against. While it’s true that the death of an infant or child seems premature, at what point must we admit that individuals are ready to die? Millions of our ancestors have come and gone. The idea that future generations can control their life spans, and enhance them to an unnatural extent, seems not only frightening, but quite frankly a little absurd. Death is inevitable, and I believe it is the time to embrace it—not run from it though technological advances.

2 responses to “A Never Beating Heart: A Glimpse into Never Ending Life

  1. Wow. This is impressive! I am always amazed at how medical technology has advanced so far. But yes, as you said, this is just to prove that we continuously try to “fight” against death. However, as we learned in the first few weeks of class, there is a certain limit where we can “revive” a person. Such as in the case of brain death, there is no shiny metal device that can replace the memories and experiences that the person had during their life time ( I guess unless people find out how to preserve memories in physical forms too). Therefore, the person is dead when he/she is not “the same” person anymore. This is of course related to what we identify as “self” or “person hood”. How do we know a person is himself? Also, in my opinion, most of the time, I see the people who are experiencing death “give in” to it and accept death, while the people around them are the ones who try to fight death. I think death is hard to understand and be comfortable with unless you are facing it yourself. I am also curious as to who should fight and not fight death? Should elders, in comparison to younger people just accept death? Should patients with terminal diseases accept death while others don’t? What is the difference between “accepting” and “giving up”?

  2. This raises all sorts of perplexing questions. The ethical questions raised by Hannah and Tram are interesting, but I wonder what sort of more anthropologically-based questions it raises. For one, this particular piece of technology is disconcerting in that one of the effects of how it preserves life is the silencing of the heartbeat–the very sign of life (technical diagnostics aside). But it also raises questions about what social values are activated in medical decision making–quality of life, length of life, cost and good death. The last, I think, the value that Hannah invokes when she argues that we ought to embrace death. That the good death is possible only when one does not struggle against it. Maybe. But clearly Lewis was drawing on different values and arrived at a different conclusion. I don’t know if, as anthropologists, we can adjudicate between the two conclusions ethically, but we can try to understand the cultural basis from which such decisions are made in contested.

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