His Heart Whirs Anew

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007

Peter Houghton is grateful for his artificial heart. After all, it has saved his life.

He's just a little wistful about emotions.

He wishes he could feel them like he used to.

Houghton is the first permanent lifetime recipient of a Jarvik 2000 left ventricular assist device. Seven years ago, it took over for the heart he was born with. Since then, it has unquestionably improved his physical well-being. He has walked long distances, traveled internationally and kept a daunting work schedule.

At the same time, he reports, he's become more "coldhearted" -- "less sympathetic in some ways." He just doesn't feel like he can connect with those close to him. He wishes he could bond with his twin grandsons, for example. "They're 8, and I don't want to be bothered to have a reasonable relationship with them and I don't know why," he says.

He can only feel enough to regret that he doesn't feel enough.

Could the poets have been right all these millennia? Could emotions be matters of the heart?

My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise.

-- Psalms 57:7

Peter Houghton, 68, has become a man after his own heart. It is a large part of his identity. His e-mail name is Heartpump1.

When first encountered at a 2006 Oxford University conference called "Tomorrow's People," he comes across like the rugby player he once was, sturdy and broad-chested. But in the spring of 2000, at the age of 61, due to severe heart failure, Houghton was staring at death.

He was okay with that. He knew death well. Trained as a psychotherapist, he had become a palliative care counselor in London and Birmingham, looking after the dying. "The things they need to do, can do, the stages it will take, things like that," he explains. He had helped 122 people into the beyond. He'd made his peace with death.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company