When Detroit Muscle Powered a Breakthrough in Heart Surgery

Posted January 18, 2018 7:56 p.m. EST

As they still do, General Motors cars cruised the streets in the shadow of Detroit’s Harper Hospital in 1952. Above them was the room of Henry Opitek, a cardiac patient who would come to owe his life to the engineers who built those cars — and who helped foster a partnership between the automotive and medical industries that continues today.

The combined efforts of Harper doctors and GM engineers would produce a miraculous machine — a mechanical device that would temporarily replace Opitek’s heart.

The operation was performed by a team led by Dr. Forest D. Dodrill, who had approached GM about a partnership after reasoning that pumping blood would be much like pumping fuel. Not only did it save a life, but it paved the way for the heart procedures carried out today. And as the car world descends on Detroit this week to catch a glimpse of the future at the North American International Auto Show, visitors could spare a moment for a look at history inside Harper Hospital, where one of the mechanical hearts remains on display.

Although the auto and medical industries have often worked side by side — from Ford’s establishment of a medical center for its workers in the 1910s to present-day OnStar technology from GM and Honda’s Walking Assist Device — the machine that came to be known as the Michigan Heart is arguably the most significant and dramatic example.

“Dodrill took a big step that at least demonstrated open-heart surgery could be done while circulating blood with a pump,” said Dr. Larry W. Stephenson, a professor of surgery at Wayne State University who documented the operation at length in a 2002 article for the Journal of Cardiac Surgery. “His achievements were one of the big steppingstones going forward.”

In the 1940s, Dodrill and other heart surgeons were performing cardiac operations that were palliative rather than corrective, because they could not operate within the heart and get at the root of the problem.

But he reasoned that if a machine could temporarily take over the heart’s pumping duties during an operation, a largely unobstructed view of the heart’s interior and access to its chambers would be possible. As a Detroiter, Dodrill knew his neighbors were well qualified to design such a machine.

Dodrill approached Dr. Warren B. Cooksey, a Harper cardiologist and president of the Michigan Heart Association, hoping to generate support for a mechanical heart engineering project. Fortuitously, Charles E. Wilson, a GM president with an abiding interest in heart research, served as chairman of the association’s board. Cooksey introduced Dodrill to Wilson, and the two men met to discuss how a mechanical heart might work.

A team of more than a dozen engineers and researchers was assigned the task of developing a mechanical heart, under the leadership of a GM engineer, Edward V. Rippingille Sr. Among those who checked in on the team’s progress was Charles F. Kettering, a retired GM vice president and inventor who had co-sponsored what is now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Although there was no room for error with lives at stake, the task seemed straightforward. “We have pumped oil, gasoline, water and other fluids one way or another in our business,” Rippingille said in a 1952 GM publication, “The Fateful Heart,” that was cited by Stephenson. “It seems only logical we should try to pump blood.”

Over the next 20 months, Rippingille’s team of engineers built and tested at least 10 mechanical hearts. Eventually, they settled on a design that resembled a V12 engine, with six pump units on each of two banks. One bank replaced the heart’s left side; the other replaced the right. The pump units gently circulated blood when positive and negative air pressure was alternately applied to flexible diaphragms inside sanitary glass tubes.

Once a working prototype of the mechanical heart had been developed, extensive surgical trials were conducted on dogs obtained from shelters where they had been scheduled for extermination. The lives of 84 dogs were lost in the pursuit, but after months of work, eight consecutive operations proved successful. The machine was deemed a success, and the first dog to survive became a Rippingille family pet.

On July 3, 1952, Dodrill operated on the 41-year-old Opitek’s failing heart, while its mechanical stand-in circulated his blood. Rippingille and two other GM employees monitored the operation of the device, while Dodrill and a surgical team successfully repaired Opitek’s mitral heart valve. According to Stephenson, it was the first instance of a surgery that the patient survived while a mechanical heart maintained blood supply.

In all, GM built four mechanical hearts for Harper Hospital between 1951 and 1956. An oxygenator that supplemented the patient’s lungs was developed in 1954 and was subsequently used in combination with the device. The Michigan Heart eventually found a home in the Smithsonian; a slightly later model is in the Harper Hospital lobby, and a third is on display at the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

“The Michigan Heart project of 1952 was an early example of how GM technology can benefit the world in a variety of ways,” said Greg Wallace, manager of the GM Heritage Center. “This extraordinary effort served as inspiration for GM employees.”

Years later, General Motors would develop OnStar, which among other features can use telemetry data to estimate the severity of accident injuries for medical personnel. And other advancements are in place — or in the works — across the industry to prevent injuries, including crash-avoidance systems and a Mercedes-Benz project that hopes to detect imminent loss of driver consciousness.

But such digital advancements owe at least a spiritual debt to the technology of the past, when Detroit muscle powered a heart and gave Henry Opitek another 29 years of life.