The Engine of Life

Sandeep Jauhar

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For centuries, the human heart seemed beyond our understanding: an inscrutable shuddering mass that was somehow the driver of emotion and the seat of the soul. As the cardiologist and bestselling author Sandeep Jauhar shows in Heart, it was only recently that we demolished age-old taboos and devised the transformative procedures that have changed the way we live. Deftly alternating between key historical episodes and his own work, Jauhar tells the colorful and little-known story of the doctors who risked their careers and the patients who risked their lives to know and heal our most vital organ. Affecting, engaging, and beautifully written, Heart takes the full measure of the only organ that can move itself.


There is nothing shameful about a heart attack.
—Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (1978)

Perhaps the most consequential event in my life occurred fifteen years before I was born. On a sweltering July day in India in 1953, my paternal grandfather died suddenly. He was only fifty-seven. The circumstances were unusual, and like most family tragedies, ours has acquired a touch of myth. Everyone agrees that in the morning on the day he died, my grandfather was bitten by a snake coiled between sacks of grain in his little shop in Kanpur. He did not see the type of serpent, but snakebite is common in India, and by all accounts my grandfather was feeling fine when he came home for lunch. My father, who was almost fourteen, was going for an interview at Kanpur Agricultural College the following day, and my grandfather had planned to accompany him. They were sitting on the stone floor, inspecting my father’s high school diploma, delighting in all the academic honors he’d received, when, midway through the meal, neighbors brought in the corpse of the shiny black cobra they claimed had bitten my grandfather. (It had been killed by a snake charmer summoned to the shop.) My grandfather took one look at it and went pale. “How can I survive this?” he said, before slumping to the floor. The neighbors exhorted him to say “Ram, Ram,” a Hindu prayer, but his last words, lying on the floor, his eyes turning to glass, were “I wanted to take Prem to college.”

A government ambulance used to make rounds in the village regularly. Around 7:00 p.m., several hours after my grandfather’s collapse, it was flagged down on a routine drive. By then, rigor mortis had set in, traveling like a slow wave from my grandfather’s neck and jaw into his limbs. The paramedics immediately declared my grandfather had passed—he had no heartbeat— but the family, in denial, insisted they take him (and the snake) to a British-built hospital about five miles away. A doctor there pronounced my grandfather dead on arrival.

“It was a heart attack,” the doctor said, dispelling the family’s belief that a snake had killed their elder. My grandfather had succumbed to the most common cause of death throughout the world, sudden cardiac death after a myocardial infarction, or heart attack, perhaps triggered in his case by fright over the snakebite. With nothing to be done, and the summer heat threatening to spoil the body, my grandfather was brought back to the village and cremated the following day. Before a garlanded casket set on a pyre soaked in oil, people beat their heads in grief under a light blue sky.

Listening to family lore, I grew up with a fear of the heart as the executioner of men in the prime of their lives. Because of the heart, you could be healthy and still die; it seemed like such a cheat. The apprehension was fed by our grandmother, who came to live with us in California in the early 1980s (until she got homesick and returned to the tiny village in Kanpur where her beloved husband had died). Even thirty years after his death, she still wrapped herself in white gossamer shawls that smelled of mothballs, befitting a widow. Once, at the Los Angeles Zoo, she bowed respectfully to the snake they brought around, clasping her hands and muttering a prayer before insisting we take her home. She was a strong-willed woman who ably took over the reins of the household after her husband died. And yet, like Miss Havisham, she spent her life in mourning over one freakish, incomprehensible incident. In India, snakes symbolize infinity and timelessness, as well as misfortune and death. To the end, in her mind, it was a venomous snake that killed her husband. And in a way, in the suddenness with which a heart attack can fell a healthy and vibrant life without warning, it was.

Because of the heart, you could be healthy and still die; it seemed like such a cheat.

My maternal grandfather also fell victim to sudden cardiac death, though many years later. He was an army doctor who set up a successful private practice at his home in New Delhi. On a September morning in 1997, just after his eighty-third birthday, he woke up complaining of abdominal pain, which he attributed to an excess of food and scotch the night before. After a few minutes, he bellowed a loud groan and went unconscious; just like that, he was gone. He almost certainly had had a massive heart attack, but that wasn’t what killed him. It was the ensuing arrhythmia—ventricular fibrillation, in which the heartbeat becomes chaotic—that prevented his heart from sustaining blood flow and life. When I talked to my mother about his death, she said she was sad that he died so suddenly. But she was thankful, too.

Thus, the human heart became an obsession for me, in no small part because of my family history. As a boy, I used to lie in bed and monitor the thudding in my own chest. I’d lie on my side, head in hand, and listen to the squirting pulse in my ears. I’d adjust the speed of the ceiling fan to synchronize with my heartbeat, in thrall to the two competing oscillators, so grateful that mine never took a rest. I was fascinated by the heart’s dichotomous nature: muscular, constantly toiling, and yet so vulnerable at the same time. Years later, when I became a heart-failure specialist, I reproduced this preoccupation in my children. When my son, Mohan, was small, we used to watch a PBS special on heart disease, in which a man having a heart attack develops cardiac arrest. In the back of an ambulance, he is shocked back to life with defibrillator paddles, his body violently jerking with the electrical discharge. Mohan would stare at the scene spellbound, often rewinding the tape, until I’d insist we turn it off, fearful of the impact on his developing mind. We’d watch it again the next day.

• • •

This book is about what the heart is, how it has been handled by medicine, and how we can most wisely live with—as well as by—our hearts in the future. The heart’s vital importance to our self-understanding is no accident. If the heart is the last major organ to stop working, it is also the first to develop— starting to beat approximately three weeks into fetal life, even before there is blood to pump. From birth until death, it beats nearly three billion times. The amount of work it performs is mind-boggling. Each heartbeat generates enough force to circulate blood through approximately 100,000 miles of vessels. The amount of blood that passes through an average adult heart in a week could fill a backyard swimming pool. But the life that it sustains can quickly be taken away. When the heart stops, death is instantaneous. If life is a continuous struggle against the inexorable march of entropy, then the heartbeat is at the core of that conflict. By purveying energy to our cells, it counteracts our tendency toward dissipation and disarray.

More than anything, the heart wants to beat; this purpose is built into its very structure. Heart cells grown in a petri dish start to contract spontaneously, seeking out other cells (through electrical connections called gap junctions) to synchronize in their rhythmic dance. In this sense, cardiac cells—and the organ they create—are social entities. The heart can continue to beat for days, even weeks, after an animal has died. In a laboratory, the French Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel showed that properly nourished chick heart tissue cultured on a medium of blood plasma and water will pulsate for months and can remain alive for more than twenty years, much longer than the normal life span of its host. This is a unique property of the heart. The brain and other vital organs cannot function without a beating heart, but a beating heart does not depend on a functioning brain, at least not in the short term. Moreover, the heart doesn’t just pump blood to other organs; it pumps blood to itself. We cannot see our own eyes. We must struggle to use our minds to change our way of thinking. But the heart is different. In a sense, and unlike any other organ, the heart is self-sustaining.

More than anything, the heart wants to beat; this purpose is built into its very structure.

Of all the connections of the heart—to emotions, to thought—the link between the heartbeat and life is perhaps the strongest. We associate the heart with life because, like life itself, the heart is dynamic. From second to second, and on a macroscopic scale, the heart is the only organ that discernibly moves. Through its murmurings, it speaks to us; through its synchronized contractions, it broadcasts an electrical signal several thousand times more powerful than any other in the body. Over the centuries, disparate cultures have viewed the heart as the source of a life-giving force that was to be culled or harvested. In ancient Egypt, the heart was the only organ that was left in the body during mummification because it was believed to play a central role in the rebirth of an individual after death. In a scene often depicted in Egyptian mythology, the heart of a deceased person is weighed on a scale balanced by a feather or statuette representing truth and divine law. If the heart balanced evenly, it was considered pure and returned to its owner. But if it proved laden with sin, it was devoured by a monstrous chimera, and the deceased was banished to the underworld. Three thousand years later, in elaborate hilltop ceremonies, the Aztecs opened the chests of slaves with flint knives and ripped out their still-beating hearts as offerings to their idols. In Western fairy tales, witches seeking immortality consumed the hearts of innocents. In Snow White, for example, the evil queen insists the hunter cut out the girl’s heart to ensure that she is really dead. Even today, when brain death has become a widely accepted sign of demise, people continue to associate a heartbeat with viability. Families come up to me in the intensive care unit and say, “His heart is beating. How could he be dead?”

The sanguine dance must eventually come to an end. Cardiovascular disease claims 18 million lives—nearly one-third of all deaths—across the globe each year. Since 1910, heart disease has been the number one killer in the United States. Today 62 million Americans (and more than 400 million worldwide, including 7 million in the United Kingdom) suffer from heart disease.

The second most common cause of death in America is cancer, but heart disease and cancer could hardly be more different. In cancer, cells divide madly, migrate wildly, invade mercilessly, in a sort of hard-charging pollution of the body. Heart disease is different: cleaner, stricter, less ambiguous, more comprehensible. Cancer patients, Susan Sontag wrote, are stained and fragmented. Cardiac patients, she said, often stand tall, seemingly healthy, like my grandfather, until they die.

The numbers could be even worse. Cardiovascular deaths in America have actually declined by almost 60 percent since the mid-1960s. From 1970 to 2000, the average life span in the United States increased by six years. Two-thirds of this increase in longevity came from advances in cardiovascular treatments. (In recent years there has been decreasing life span in middle-aged whites for non-cardiovascular reasons.) Although more than 60 percent of Americans will develop some form of cardiovascular disease in their lifetime, less than a third will die of it, so we know our treatments are effective. The twentieth century will go down in history as one in which the great scourge of cardiovascular disease finally began to come under control.

There is a downside to this success, of course. Patients who once might have died of heart disease now must live with it, though often in an enervated state, a fraction of their former selves. Every year more than half a million Americans develop congestive heart failure, in which the heart weakens or stiffens to the point that it cannot properly pump blood to meet the energy demands of the body. Heart failure is now the number one reason patients over sixty-five years old are hospitalized, and most patients still die within five years of diagnosis. Ironically, as we become more adept at treating heart disease, the set of people who are ill with it is growing.

The cardiovascular situation in America is likely going to get worse in the coming years. Adherence to a heart-healthy lifestyle has decreased. In aggregate, Americans have become more obese and sedentary, and smoking rates have hardly changed in the past two decades. An autopsy study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that 80 percent of Americans sixteen to sixty-four years old have at least the beginnings of coronary artery disease. These findings indicate that the four-¬decade-long decline in heart disease may be coming to a screeching halt. We will need new ways to cope with this threat.

In the pages that follow, I will examine the emotional and scientific dimensions of an organ that has intrigued and eluded philosophers and physicians for centuries. No other organ—perhaps no other object in human life—is so imbued with metaphor and meaning. The history I will describe is not one of uninterrupted progress, but it is one that, in fits and starts, has solved major challenges, helping countless people survive a disease that was once considered terminal. It is a grand story—from the natural philosophers who dwelled on the heart’s metaphorical meanings, to William Harvey and the discovery of circulation, to large-scale endeavors like the Framingham Heart Study that explored the causes of heart disease, to modern surgical techniques and technologies that even a century ago, because of the heart’s exalted status in human culture, were considered taboo.

No other organ—perhaps no other object in human life—is so imbued with metaphor and meaning.

The twelfth-century Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen once wrote, “The soul sits at the center of the heart, as though in a house.” In many ways, the heart does resemble a house. It is divided into multiple chambers, separated by doors. The walls have a characteristic texture. The house is old, designed over many millennia. Hidden from view are the wires and pipes that keep it functioning. And though the house has no intrinsic meaning, it carries meaning because of the meanings we attribute to it. The heart was once considered the center of human action and thought—the source of courage, desire, ambition, and love. Even if those connotations are outdated, they are still deeply relevant to how we think about this organ and how it shapes our lives.

Sandeep Jauhar, MD, PhD, is the director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. He is the author of Doctored and Intern and writes regularly for The New York Times. He lives with his wife and their son and daughter on Long Island.

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