UF Health Shands is a home for broken hearts.
In the back corner of a small lab in the Human Development Center on the third floor, nine shelves, two carts and one cabinet are jam-packed with jars — each one housing a heart in the Van Mierop congenital heart collection.
Dating back to the early 1960s, the collection was created by Dr. Lodewyk (Bob) Van Mierop, now 89 and retired, and is among the largest in the country, containing about 750 donated hearts. With an assortment ranging from common to complex, each heart has some sort of congenital defect.
The collection acts as an educational tool for medical students, resident physicians and faculty, granting them the ability to hold real hearts in their hands and study the individual defects up close. Researchers worldwide utilize the collection to test their theories. Even cardiac surgeons have relied on the specimens to practice surgeries before operating on a living patient.
Yet despite its significance in the medical community, the collection does not receive formal funding from UF’s College of Medicine. Lacking financial support, space and supplies, the specimens are starting to surpass their designated shelving.
“The collection is continuing to grow,” said Diane Spicer, a pathologists’ assistant and the current caretaker of the heart collection. “Which means our challenges are also increasing because as we add [more hearts] we need more space, we need more jars.”
The most immediate concern for the collection is space, which is a major commodity even on an expanding medical campus. There is also a need for more formalin, the main preservation chemical used to maintain the collection. Although the hearts have made some headway from their original home in the hospital’s basement, there is still room for improvement, Spicer said.
According to Dr. Jay Fricker, a major advocate for the Van Mierop specimens, the collection is irreplaceable and will never be able to be duplicated again. Their value stems from the fact that a majority of the hearts in the collection come from children and infants who were patients at UF Health.
“These hearts were preserved before we had surgeons that could repair congenital defects,” Fricker said. “So these hearts are so valuable because we lose very few children with congenital heart disease anymore because the surgery is so good.“
This makes the collection an incredible teaching tool, he said.
Although pictures in a textbook are useful in helping medical students learn concepts, the Van Mierop specimens are preserved in a way that they can be handled.
“There is no better way to look at a defective heart than having it actually in your hands…in three dimensions,” said Dr. Van Mierop, who started the collection with the hopes of eventually learning how to prevent these defects in the first place.
Yossi Schwartz, a third-year medical student at UF, said he found the collection to be valuable in learning about heart defects by bringing abstract concepts into reality. And the experience itself was noteworthy.“I think anyone with a general interest in medicine should appreciate holding a little baby heart like that with these congenital diseases in their hands,” he said. “That should be a memorable experience for anyone.”
Regardless of the educational value and research potential, Spicer attributes the archives lack of attention to its lack of revenue. The collection may call for spending money and maintaining space, but there is a big takeaway for the medical personnel who experience the heart specimens, she said.
“Even though it might not be bringing us cash in the door, it still leaves a bit of prestige for the university,” Spicer said.
Fricker said he thinks a major detractor from the collection’s funding is a desire to reconstruct the congenital heart defects on a computer with 3-D imaging, CT scanning or MRIs. Although he can understand why people think this is the future of teaching congenital heart disease, he does not think any image or plastic model will compare to a real collection, he said.
Although the collection has been unable to receive funding from the College of Medicine, the college’s dean, Dr. Michael Good, still sees the archive’s value.
“Our faculty use a variety of digital, virtual, standardized, anatomic and simulated patient tools to help educate and train students, residents and fellows,” he said. “The Van Mierop heart collection is an example of one of the many tools our students can use to learn human anatomy and medical skills.”
Advocators for the Van Mierop archive are concerned with ensuring the donated hearts don’t go to waste.
“Surgical procedures have come from work with hearts from children who didn’t make it in the past,” Spicer said. “It’s all a benefit from other losses to help the losses be less in the future.”