January 4, 2011

Miracle Of Medical Technology

Maybe you think Dick Cheney was a force for good, or at least for good government. Maybe you think the exact opposite. But hopefully even if you detested the man's politics, and even if you think he was corrupt, you can find a moment to think about his human condition and marvel.

See, Cheney has had a heart condition for many years now and has suffered heart failure. If this were the 1960's, the man would almost certainly be dead right now because the effects of all of this has been to render his heart too weak to pump blood throughout his body quickly and effectively enough to nourish it. So he is now fitted with a remarkable device:
His new mechanical pump, a partial artificial heart known as a ventricular assist device, leaves patients without a pulse because it pushes blood continuously instead of mimicking the heart’s own beat. Most pulse-less patients feel nothing unusual, but the devices do pose significant risks of infection. They are implanted as a last resort either for permanent use or as a bridge to transplant until a donor heart can be found. Mr. Cheney, who has participated in some of the nation’s toughest decisions for decades, now faces a crucial one of his own: whether to seek a full heart transplant. ... With most patients, a power line emerges about waist level and connects to a controller, a minicomputer that plugs into a pair of one-and-a-half-pound, 12-volt batteries. Patients wear a black mesh vest over their clothing that holds the controller and batteries.
He will never be able to take a shower again, unless he has a heart transplant, because of all that electronic equipment. A sponge bath will do for hygiene and odor control, which sucks, although if it came down to a choice between a life of only sponge baths and dying, I'd take the sponge any day.

The point here is not to do a pre-mortem on the man or his politics. Even if you detested the man, thought he was corrupt and evil, and couldn't wait for him to get out of power, that's not a reason to wish him death or wish that his family have to go through grief for him. And for now, they won't. No, the point here is to marvel that despite suffering repeated heart failures, modern technology has a way to keep him alive.

"But Cheney is really, really rich," you say, "and someone like you or me could never afford this miraculous technology if we had the same condition he did." Well, right now that's true. And yes, it is fortunate for Cheney that he is personally wealthy and so the cost of all this technology is well within his grasp. But you're not taking a long view to lodge that sort of protest. Yes, it's always the wealthy who get this sort of stuff first.  They buy the technology at a premium price, which enables the developers of that technology to both recoup their startup costs and thus offer it for sale in the future at a lower price, and it creates an incentive for even more science, research, and technology to be developed in the future.

This is why I like both science and economics so much. They save lives.


Mike said...

Once again, your bias is showing. Just about anyone who needs a VAD can get one: they're COVERED BY MEDICARE.

So put your whiny "waah waah he only got it because he's rich" on the shelf, please.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

I think you've misread my post. I like the fact that rich people pay for these sorts of things to be created.

I did not know that these devices are covered by Medicare. I don't think that takes away from my central point, though, which was to express amazement at technology which I had not previously known even existed.

I guess you're an expert not only on Koranic studies but medical technology and applicability of public health subsidies, too. You're quite the polymath, there, Mike!

Mike said...

All you need is one relative who's had to have a VAD waiting for surgery to know a bit about whether or not it's covered.

My point remains. Those who scream about how only "the rich" get certain treatments don't know what they are talking about. Extremely hyper-experimental treatments? Sometimes, since just about no insurance company at all will cover them. But if the treatment has reached clinical trial status, oftentimes it's "free" to the study participants anyways.