Artificial-Heart Surgeon William Devries Transplants Himself to Greener Pastures

updated 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Dr. William DeVries performed the world's first permanent artificial heart implant on retired dentist Barney Clark 20 months ago at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City, the surgeon became a special hero to the desert community. Last week, a disheartened DeVries, 40, shocked the city by announcing he was leaving to join the staff of the Humana Heart Institute in Louisville, Ky.—pride of the privately operated 89-hospital Humana Inc. chain.

DeVries' frustrations at the Utah center—the only hospital with a trained implant team and Food and Drug Administration approval to perform the operation—had been growing since Clark's death in March 1983, 112 days after the patient had received the man-made organ. Efforts by DeVries to undertake more implants had been stymied by the university's Institutional Review Board—while dozens of terminally ill patients requested the surgery. DeVries commented that he was tired of seeing "people die while I wait for the red tape." In the wake of Clark's death, the IRB remained wary of a second implant. "There were a lot of people who think the Barney Clark case was a disaster," says Dr. John Bosso, chairman of the IRB, who finally gave DeVries the go-ahead for a second implant last January, with future operations to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

DeVries expects to be much more active at the new hospital. Humana, the most profitable U.S. hospital chain, has guaranteed to underwrite 100 artificial-heart implants, which could cost $25 million. And though Humana has not yet received the official FDA go-ahead for the operation, a crack surgical group is in training and Humana hopes for an early FDA okay. "He couldn't have a better setup than they are offering," says DeVries' wife, Karen, who has reconciled with him after a brief separation this year. She adds, "He's not going there for the money."

A few staffers at the Utah center feel otherwise—that DeVries was selling his services to the highest bidder. But most Salt Lakers are merely saddened by the shifting of the scientific limelight from their state. "It's disappointing," says hotel employee Gregg Roseborough. "It was nice being the heartbeat of America."

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