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True or False: The First Heart-Lung Machine Cost $15 To Manufacture

Posted by Adam Pick on March 10th, 2010

Are you ready for another interesting “True / False” trivia question about heart valve surgery? Okay… Is this statement true or false?

One of the first heart-lung machines used in cardiac surgery, the Dewall-Lillehei machine, cost only $15 to manufacture.

For the answer, please scroll below the picture of Richard Dewall and his artificial heart-lung machine (1955).


With about $15 worth of odds and ends from their laboratory — including tubing made for carrying beer — two University of Minnesota medical legends, Richard Dewall and Walt Lillehei, ended the era when a serious heart defect meant a drastically shortened life.

In 1955, Dewall and Lillehei created what became known as the DeWall-Lillehei bubble oxygenator, the very first artificial heart-lung machine. The machine worked by extracting depleted blood from the patient and feeding it with oxygen bubbles shot in through a series of needles. The rejuvenated blood was then mixed with an anti-foaming agent and channeled back into the circulatory system.

The bubble oxygenator replaced two riskier alternatives available to open-heart surgeons at that time.

One was induced hypothermia. When Lillehei and another University surgeon, John Lewis, performed the world’s first open-heart surgery in 1952, they lowered their patient’s body temperature to 80 degrees to slow her metabolism. The surgery was a success, but hypothermia gave doctors only a brief window — about 10 minutes — to operate.

Dr. Walt Lillehei, Cardiac Surgeon Who Developed The Heart Lung Machine
Dr. Walt Lillehei (1918-1999)

The other early alternative was to have a live donor (sometimes a parent of the patient) in the operating room serving as the patient’s heart and lungs during the procedure. But “cross-circulation” was risky to the donor, and finding the right blood-type match could be difficult.

While other heart-lung devices were being tested at the time, the Dewall-Lillehei machine stood out. It was easy to sterilize and, unlike other prototypes, contained no moving parts which could break down. It was the prototype of equipment still in use today. It has allowed trained cardiac surgeons in any modern, well-equipped hospital to perform open-heart surgery.

According to the American Heart Association, about 700,000 open-heart surgeries were performed in the United States in 2005.

Also, if you are curious, $15 in 1955 is worth about $120 in 2010 (adjusted at an annual inflation rate of 3.9%). Still, pretty cheap for a heart-lung machine, right? :)

Keep on tickin!

Adam Pick
Written by Adam Pick A dad, a husband and a patient, Adam Pick founded this website in 2006 to educate you about heart valve surgery from diagnosis to recovery.
You can get the latest updates about heart valve surgery from Adam at his Facebook, and Twitter pages. Click here to email him.


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