Over the months that members of the Humana Heart Institute International medical team held dress rehearsals in the operating room, equally elaborate preparations were going on backstage.

Humana Inc.'s public relations department was being primed for the day when the Louisville-based hospital company would step onto the international stage with the world's second permanent artificial-heart implant.

By most accounts, it has been a slick production that has earned good reviews for efficiency, organization and timely delivery of information to the more than 200 reporters covering the operation.

George Atkins, public affairs director for Humana, said that from the beginning the artificial-heart project was viewed as a combination of team efforts by "the surgical team, the hospital team and the public relations team."

Atkins told reporters at a day-long briefing last week that the company was determined to avoid criticisms leveled at other hospitals that have recently performed dramatic surgeries, such as the transplanting of a baboon heart into Baby Fae.

Humana officials acknowledge that the implant offers the for-profit hospital group a priceless public relations opportunity.

When Dr. William C. DeVries announced his move from the University of Utah to Louisville in July, Humana immediately began working on an elaborate media-relations effort.

The hospital chain's director of public relations, Robert Irvine, was transferred from the corporate office to an office at Humana Hospital Audubon to oversee public relations for its heart institute. While members of the surgical team crisscrossed the country to meet with their University of Utah counterparts, Irvine flew at least twice in a company plane to confer with the university's spokesman.

While doctors and nurses went through several dress rehersals to check the artificial-heart hardware and the positioning of operating-room personnel, public relations staffers were compiling a hefty briefing book, graphics and videotapes of the heart team.

Humana rented blocks of hotel rooms for the news media and promised shuttle service from the door step to the hospital once the implant was announced.

Weeks before DeVries obtained approval from the Food and Drug Administration to perform the experimental surgery at Audubon, construction workers were scrambling to convert a hospital classroom into a state-of-the-art briefing area for reporters and photographers.

They had estimated an attendance of 175 reporters. When it became clear last week that the number would exceed 200, the company's media-relations operation base was shifted to a downtown convention center about five miles from the hospital.

Last Monday, when more than 100 journalists converged on the hospital for a briefing by the major players, Humana chairman and chief executive officer David Jones took the opportunity to tout Audubon's services and the company's multimillion-dollar commitment to artificial-heart research.

In preparation for the onslaught of reporters and the otherwise curious, Audubon beefed up security, stationing uniformed employes from a local detective agency on the cardiovascular floor. At one point, Humana considered providing the doctors home-to-hospital limousine service.

While Humana has made a well-orchestrated effort to accommodate the news media, it has also reserved a private company's right to control certain information, unlike the University of Utah. At first, Humana barred all interviews with DeVries, but it later allowed members of the local media to meet with him on the condition that the conversations were off-the-record until FDA approval was secured.

Humana officials also declined to name the members of Audubon's institutional review board, saying that the board might become subject to outside influences. The names were obtained, however, by a local reporter who filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FDA.

The hospital's board approved DeVries' experimental procedure within two months, much faster than the Utah board. Humana officials maintain that was because DeVries already had federal approval to perform the implant in Utah and needed only to have a supplement and a few revisions cleared by the hospital and the FDA.

Some of the company's public relations activities have come under fire.

Humana made friends and headlines when it agreed to battle the indigent-care problem in Louisville by taking over operation of the money-losing public-health hospital. Recently, after 18 months of managing the hospital, Humana announced that it turned a profit of more than $1 million.