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Be still, my beating heart: reading pulselessness from Shakespeare to the artificial heart


Today, patients with heart failure can be kept alive by an artificial heart while they await a heart transplant. These modern artificial hearts, or left ventricular assist devices (LVADs), remove the patient’s discernible pulse while still maintaining life. This technology contradicts physiological, historical and sociocultural understandings of the pulse as central to human life. In this essay, we consider the ramifications of this contrast between the historical and cultural importance placed on the pulse (especially in relation to our sense of self) and living with a pulseless LVAD. We argue that the pulse’s relationship to individual identity can be rescripted by examining its representation in formative cultural texts like the works of William Shakespeare. Through an integration of historical, literary and biomedical engineering perspectives on the pulse, this paper expands interpretations of pulselessness and advocates for the importance of cultural—as well as biomedical—knowledge to support patients with LVADs and those around them. In reconsidering figurative and literal representations of the heartbeat in the context of technology which removes the need for a pulse, this essay argues that narrative and metaphor can be used to reconceptualise the relationship between the heartbeat and identity.

  • cardiology
  • English literature
  • literary studies
  • literature and medicine
  • medical humanities

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