Daniel Timms started working on his artificial heart in 2001, when he was twenty-two years old. A graduate student in biomedical engineering, he was living with his parents in Brisbane, Australia. He was searching for a dissertation topic when his father, Gary, who was fifty, suffered a massive heart attack. At first, the problem seemed to be a faulty valve; soon they learned that Gary’s entire heart was failing. Heart failure is a progressive condition—a person can live for years while his heart slowly gives out. There was a narrow window of time. A course of study had presented itself.
Gary was a plumber, and Timms’s mother, Karen, was a high-school science assistant. Theirs was a tinkering, experimenting household; as a kid, Timms and his father had spent countless afternoons in the back yard building an elaborate system of fountains, ponds, and waterfalls. It was only natural that he and his dad would work together on a heart. They bought tubes, pipes, and valves at the hardware store and, in their garage, constructed a crude approximation of the circulatory system. Timms started reading about the history of the artificial heart. The first human implantation had been done in 1969, by a surgeon named Denton Cooley, of the Texas Heart Institute, in Houston. The patient, Haskell Karp, had been sustained for sixty-four hours—a great success, considering that his heart had been cut out of his chest. Engineers felt sure that, within a few years, they’d have the problem licked.