In the summer of 1952, 41-year-old Henry Opitek showed up at Harper University Hospital in Detroit complaining of shortness of breath. If ever there was a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty story, Opitek’s is it. Turned out, he had a major heart issue. At the same time, he was in luck. Doctors at Harper had a nifty device they wanted to try out. Opitek was about to become the first human being to be kept alive using a mechanical heart. The thing was larger than today’s microwave ovens, and—not at all coincidentally—it resembled a V-12 engine.
This story originally appeared in Volume 6 of Road & Track.
Ask yourself: What is the first engine to appear on earth? What is the origin of all rhythm and the inspiration for all motors that have ever existed? That would be the human heart. Like any engine, this one has a tendency to blow a gasket now and then. So in the early Fifties, a Harper surgeon named Forest Dodrill met with Charles Wilson, president of General Motors, who was chairman of the Michigan Heart Association. Their goal: to develop the world’s first mechanical heart. They teamed up with a group of GM scientists headed by Edward Rippingille.
At a GM lab, Rippingille oversaw the design of the device that would ultimately become known as the Dodrill-GMR heart machine. He outlined the thinking in an internal GM publication in 1952: “We have pumped oil, gasoline, water, and other fluids one way or another in our business. It seems only logical we should try to pump blood.” The team tested 10 designs and settled on a machine with two banks of six pumps, sort of like a V-12. They tried it on dogs that were awaiting euthanasia. When they thought they had it all dialed in, they needed a human patient. Enter Henry Opitek.
Doctors led by Dodrill cut open Opitek’s chest, all the way to his beating heart. Hooking up the mechanical heart was not all that different from installing jumper cables, just more consequential. They clamped his aorta and inserted a small glass tube connected to a rubber hose, then did the same with a major vein. The pump had been primed with donor blood. When everything was in place, they flipped a switch and removed the clamps holding the vessels shut. The 12 “cylinders” created just the right amount of pressure to move blood through the patient’s body while repairs were made to his heart.
GM reported the breakthrough with a photo believed to be of Opitek’s surgery itself (see left). The news traveled nationwide, and the GM machine became known as the Michigan Heart.
Opitek was not alone. The GM heart saved the life of a three-year-old girl and a teenage boy who went on to become a baseball standout. But Opitek was the first. He lived on, a glass-half-full man. As the New York Times later put it, “Detroit muscle powered a heart and gave Henry Opitek another 29 years of life.”