October 13, 2011

Watkins recounts early days of implantable defibrillator

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Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., second from right, at Tuesday’s lecture with, from left, Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., George C. Hill, Ph.D., and Andre Churchwell, M.D. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Watkins recounts early days of implantable defibrillator

Levi Watkins Jr. M.D., the first African-American to be accepted into Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and the first to graduate in 1970, also performed the world’s first human implantation of the automatic implantable defibrillator (AID) in 1980.

How ironic, he said, that women and black people are 30 percent to 40 percent less likely to get a defibrillator when they meet the criteria and have the insurance.

“It seems ironic that a black man helped develop [the implantable defibrillator]…and this fact remains,” he said.

Watkins, the first associate dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and professor of Cardiac Surgery, delivered on Tuesday the 10th Annual Levi Watkins Jr. Lecture on Diversity in Medical and Graduate Education and spoke on “Human Defibrillation: History and Evolution.”

The Egyptians were the first people to think about human defibrillation, count the human pulse with an Egyptian clock and record it on paper. In 1555 B.C. they wrote, “When the heart is diseased, its work is imperfectly performed.”

In 1957 William Kouwenhoven, an American electrical engineer at Johns Hopkins, developed a closed-chest defibrillator that was used in intensive care units.

Mieczyslaw Mirowski, M.D., a Polish cardiologist, had a good friend die of sudden cardiac death in his early 30s. Mirowski came to the United States determined to use the technology of the big external defibrillator, shrink it, put it in a human and see what happened.

“Nobody believed it was going to work,” Watkins said.

Watkins, along with Vivien Thomas, who pioneered the field of heart surgery with Alfred Blalock, M.D., and colleagues, tested the device at Johns Hopkins on dogs by implanting a fibrillator and defibrillator on either side of the chest.

On Feb. 4, 1980, Watkins performed the world’s first surgical implantation of an AID in a 54-year-old California woman.

“The operating room was full of animal technicians and cardiologists. Electrophysiology was in its infancy at the time; everyone on the service [was there],” he recalled of that first procedure. “This thing [device] was quite sizeable, with two electrodes and a shocking unit.

“Now millions have them and it’s standard treatment for sudden cardiac death.”

At the lecture, the following Levi Watkins Jr. Awards were presented:
Faculty Award — Scott Williams, M.D.
House Officer Award — Alric Hawkins, M.D., and Colin Martin, M.D.
Student Award — Allison Martin, Kristen Eckstrand and Janina Jeff.