The Transplant Imaginary: Mechanical Hearts, Animal Parts, and Moral Thinking in Highly Experimental Science

The Transplant Imaginary: Mechanical Hearts, Animal Parts, and Moral Thinking in Highly Experimental Science

The Transplant Imaginary: Mechanical Hearts, Animal Parts, and Moral Thinking in Highly Experimental Science

The Transplant Imaginary: Mechanical Hearts, Animal Parts, and Moral Thinking in Highly Experimental Science

Synopsis

In The Transplant Imaginary, author Lesley Sharp explores the extraordinarily surgically successful realm of organ transplantation, which is plagued worldwide by the scarcity of donated human parts, a quandary that generates ongoing debates over the marketing of organs as patients die waiting for replacements. These widespread anxieties within and beyond medicine over organ scarcity inspire seemingly futuristic trajectories in other fields. Especially prominent, longstanding, and promising domains include xenotransplantation, or efforts to cull fleshy organs from animals for human use, and bioengineering, a field peopled with "tinkerers" intent on designing implantable mechanical devices, where the heart is of special interest.

Scarcity, suffering, and sacrifice are pervasive and, seemingly, inescapable themes that frame the transplant imaginary. Xenotransplant experts and bioengineers at work in labs in five Anglophone countries share a marked determination to eliminate scarcity and human suffering, certain that their efforts might one day altogether eliminate any need for parts of human origin. A premise that drives Sharp's compelling ethnographic project is that high-stakes experimentation inspires moral thinking, informing scientists' determination to redirect the surgical trajectory of transplantation and, ultimately, alter the integrity of the human form.

Excerpt

On August 2, 2011, the BBC reported the successful hospital discharge and homecoming of forty-year-old “dad Matthew Green,” who had undergone an extraordinary surgical procedure two months before: a team of transplant experts permanently removed Green’s failing natal heart and replaced it with a SynCardia Total Artificial Heart (TAH), a device designed to serve as a temporary “bridge” until a suitable human donor heart match could be found. Green’s newly implanted artificial heart was now powered by an external Freedom® Portable Driver, a hefty battery assemblage weighing a bit over six kilograms, or thirteen pounds, tethered to Green’s body and nestled within a backpack that he must carry at all times. Reports of Green’s story played on long-established tropes that emphasize both medical prowess and regained social normalcy that were first developed two decades ago by the U.S. transplant industry and have since gone global. Green’s case is one of approximately 900 similar surgeries worldwide, although his marked the first attempt in the United Kingdom. As cardiovascular surgeon Steven Tsui proclaimed, this was “the first time a patient was walking the streets of Britain without a human heart.” Green himself underscored the effects of his surgical transformation in words reminiscent of those uttered by recipients of allografts (that is, transplanted organs derived from human donors); as he explained, “It’s going to revolutionise my life. Before I couldn’t walk anywhere. I could hardly climb a flight of stairs and now I’ve been up and I’ve been walking out and getting back to a normal life…. I went out for a pub lunch over the weekend and that just felt fantastic, to be with normal people again.”

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