Let's Reminisce: The emperor of organs

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

The human heart is remarkable in that it is designed to pump continuously for 120 years without ever needing to be reminded what it was meant to do. It just does it. Referring to it as the emperor of organs, physicians say that if anything in this universe reflects the fingerprint of God, it is the human heart. 

While it pumps more than a hundred thousand times a day without stopping, pushing hundreds of gallons of fluid around the body, it derives no benefit from the blood it pumps, making it the most unselfish of organs. In order to feed itself, it siphons from its own flow then reroutes it through three main arteries that loop back around the outside of the muscle to feed itself. Two of these arteries feed approximately half the heart, and the third (largest) artery—also known as the widowmaker—feeds the other half. If it becomes blocked with plaque, a condition known as coronary artery disease, the heart stops. 

If caught early, this condition can be corrected with a stent or a bypass—taking an artery from another place in the body, like the leg or inside the chest wall, and rerouting the siphon. 

If you’ve ever purchased an old house with cast iron plumbing, you have some idea of how this works. Rather than remove all of the old, you simply snake it to dislodge the clog—a temporary fix—or add new pipe to bypass it altogether for a more permanent fix.  

Following such surgery, it is not uncommon for an individual to leave the operating room with four or five bypasses and a rather expensive medical bill. 

In the womb, a baby gains oxygen through its mother’s lungs, which she sends, along with everything else the baby needs, via the umbilical cord. Baby’s heart doesn’t need to send blood out to its lungs to be reoxygenated. Mom has already taken care of that. To prevent the needless flow of blood through those tender lungs, nature created a small hole between the right and left atria—the top portions of the heart—that allows it, in utero, to bypass the lungs. At birth a hormone called prostaglandin usually causes the hole to close and begins routing the blood into and out of the lungs. When that doesn’t happen, and the hole doesn’t close, it is called an atrial septal defect. People who have this unclosed “hole in the heart” may face an uphill battle to survive beyond childhood. 

For most of us, the heart works pretty well until genetics, or what we have eaten, or how we’ve lived catches up with us. Usually that “catching up” is called a heart attack, which is nothing more than plaque clogging an artery and stopping blood flow to a portion of the heart. Anyone who has ever tried to run the quarter mile on a track knows what this means. The first three hundred yards can be relatively fun. But by the last turn and final straightaway, the human body is so oxygen-deprived that the muscles are beginning to lock up, making the runner feel as if paralysis has set in. Experienced runners call the last fifty yards “the bear,” because it often feels as if one has jumped on your back. 

In truth, the muscles in the runner’s legs have burned far more oxygen than the heart and lungs can supply. Aggressive training can help, but it cannot overcome genetics. The physical limitations of aerobic exercise are established by the volume of oxygen and blood the heart and lungs send throughout the body. 

Jerry Lincecum

When the human heart has suffered an attack, often the area that’s been shut off from blood flow will die. Amazingly, even half-dead, the human heart still pumps. People can survive and live somewhat normal lives with only part of their hearts functioning, though it changes their lifestyles substantially. The heart is not only the most unselfish of organs, it is also the most courageous and faithful. 

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject:  jlincecum@me.com