Rolly: Winchell left heart with the U.

Published June 29, 2005 2:03 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

You might have heard of the death Friday of Paul Winchell, the well-known entertainer and ventriloquist of the 1950s and '60s who created the lovable dummy Jerry Mahoney and was the voice of Tigger in Walt Disney's Winnie-the-Pooh films.

Winchell also was an inventor and the rest of the story is that he had a colorful connection to the University of Utah.

Winchell designed an artificial heart, Patent no. 3,097,365, issued in 1963, which he eventually donated to the University of Utah in return for access to the U.'s research facilities and artificial heart development team for promotional purposes. He also said, in the agreement with Dr. Willem J. Kolff, that he could raise money for artificial heart research through films and telethons because of his connections in Hollywood.

As the research evolved at the U. of U., a different heart from what Winchell had designed was eventually placed in calves for experimentation and, then, in the early 1980s, in Barney Clark at the University of Utah Medical Center.

But before all that, Winchell's relationship with the U. of U. team became strained because he would show up during experimentation with a photographer and some attractive models to pose for pictures in the lab.

Don B. Olsen, a principal member of the team who led the experiments on the calves, details the erosion of the relationship in a book he plans to publish soon on the development of the artificial heart.

Olsen says the U. of U. team was dismayed after Olsen reported that he heard the radio personality Paul Harvey report that Winchell "at this moment" was assisting the U. team in the implantation of Winchell's heart in a human being. That was 10 years before the historic implantation of the Jarvik 7 heart into the chest of Barney Clark.

Winchell eventually was denied access to the U. labs and threatened to sue, Olsen writes.

The final straw came when Kolff received a letter in 1976 from Parnassus Productions regarding a film Winchell wanted to produce to sell and raise money for artificial heart research.

"Mr. Winchell had submitted a script to Dr. Kolff where, in the final scene, Dr. Jarvik and a longtime personal friend are walking across grass on the University campus. Suddenly the friend grabs his chest, falls to the ground and Dr. Jarvik has an artificial heart and implants it and they walk quietly on their way. This was totally unacceptable," Olsen writes in his book.

Slipping through the cracks: Danny Donnahue, a 44-year-old diabetic whose body rejected his twin sister's kidney transplant, has had his left leg amputated. His right leg, broken the day before his surgery, was never set properly and is unusable. He is on dialysis and uses a wheelchair.

The bedroom the Taylorsville man shared with his wife is up a seven-step flight of stairs (which also is where the bathroom is located). So he doesn't sleep there anymore. He sleeps in a makeshift bed downstairs, uses a portable toilet and wheels himself next door to his mother-in-law's house to wash up in a basin.

He can't afford the $20,000 wheelchair lift that would enable him to sleep with his wife, and Medicare doesn't pay for those sorts of things. The Diabetes Foundation uses its funds for research only. So he is out of luck.


Paul Rolly welcomes e-mail at prolly@sltrib.com.

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