THE BILL SCHROEDER STORY By the Schroeder Family with Martha Barnette Morrow. 383 pp. $17.95
On Nov. 25, 1984, a 52-year-old Indiana naval yard worker named Bill Schroeder had implanted in his chest the so-called Jarvik-7, an artificial heart made of plastic and Velcro. Dying of congestive heart failure (he was actually lucky to have made it through the night before the operation), Schroeder became the second man to receive what is in essence a mechanical blood pump, and for the next 21 months he lived -- uncomfortably (attached by cords to a 230-pound drive system), painfully as time passed, but on balance thankfully, given time he would not otherwise have shared with his close-knit and loving family.
"The Bill Schroeder Story" describes this extraordinary man's progress -- and deterioration, and progress and deterioration -- during those 21 months: the apparently smooth implant operation by the gifted surgeon William DeVries and an immediate setback as internal bleeding required a second operation; stabilization and transition to a nearby apartment; disabling stroke, fevers and depression; another stroke, multiple seizures, anemia, liver infection and death. And throughout it all, an amazing outpouring of good will and gifts for a man who had become an instant folk hero to the American public.
Bill Schroeder lived longer than anyone else on an artificial heart, surpassing Barney Clark, the first recipient of the Jarvik-7, and surviving two other later recipients, and his story is an inspirational one. But it is more than one man's medical tale. It is also the story of Humana Inc., the massive Louisville-based medical company that is financing the experimental implant program; of Humana's aggressive PR operation, which (sometimes at the expense of the Schroeder family's privacy) kept 250 reporters supplied with information and photos; and finally of the surgeon DeVries himself, a true believer in artificial heart implants and the only surgeon in the country with federal authorization to do them. DeVries' relationship with his patient and with the Schroeder family is especially poignant, and in the end quite sad; his medical decision to prohibit Schroeder from attending his son's wedding causes a permanent rift between doctor and family.
Indeed, it is the family -- wife Margaret and six grown children -- whose ordeal is most emotionally compelling. As they began to realize toward the end of Schroeder's life, the artificial heart experiment was as much an experiment on the family as on the patient -- although in very different ways. To the extent that their own account of themselves is accurate, they are an unusually attentive and caring family; Margaret uprooted herself from Indiana to be with her husband for the 21 months he survived, and the children sacrificed at least as much.
And although they never say it was a mistake, they (as authors) in the end make this a cautionary tale for would-be recipients of artificial hearts. In retrospect, they say, they would do a lot differently: ask more questions before signing anything; make more demands in terms of consistency of care; involve lawyers. They are clearly ambivalent: happy for the extra time with Bill Schroeder, and gratified by the patient's contribution to the public good (some 40 Jarvik hearts have since been used as transitions to heart transplants), but unhappy with the disruptions that the medical experiment and media blitz caused in their personal lives.
There are some problems with the book. First, it is written by the entire family "with" Martha Barnette, a reporter who covered the story for The Louisville Times and The Washington Post. Yet all of the family members and Barnette appear in the story at one time or another, so it is impossible to know whose assessments we are receiving. Is the very, very favorable portrait of the Schroeder family Barnette's -- or the Schroeders'? Also, the book is written in diary format, and some readers may find the day-to-day detail excessive. I didn't. In fact, I think the day-to-day reports on Schroeder's condition and the family's response work to the effect that the authors wanted: The reader who sticks with the account becomes part of the family, suffering over small setbacks and cheering small advances, empathizing with Bill Schroeder and, most of all, admiring his tremendous courage.
The reviewer is the managing editor of Psychology Today.