It may have seemed a flight of fancy in the 1970s, when Lee Majors fascinated TV viewers with his portrayal of astronaut Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man.
But science has advanced to the point where almost all human body parts can be simulated and replaced, according to the makers of The Incredible Bionic Man, a documentary that debuted on October 20 on the Smithsonian Channel.
The film, produced by British Darlow Smithson Productions, follows leading roboticists as they assemble a fully functioning bionic man from the most advanced materials available today. While some of the body parts are still prototypes, the documentary shows how a number of the manufactured parts—such as artificial hearts—are already being implanted in humans to help improve their quality of life.
In July 2012, the film crew arrived at the VCU Pauley Heart Center, where they filmed cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Daniel Tang implanting a SynCardia Total Artificial Heart in patient David Henderson, who at the time was 46 and suffering from advanced heart failure.
“We selected VCU as it is a major center for artificial heart replacement and [the doctors] were implanting an artificial heart during our filming period, said James Pope, researcher for Darlow Smithson. At perhaps the most dramatic point in the film, Dr. Tang surgically removes Henderson’s own organ from the surrounding arteries, in preparation for the implantation of the artificial heart.
In speaking to Dr. Tang about the movie, he said Henderson’s surgery went “extremely well.” The patient remained in the hospital while he awaited a donor heart. One became available, and Dr. Vigneshwar Kasirajan performed the successful transplant.
Throughout the lengthy stay, “Dr. Tang kept me going, kept my spirits up,” said Henderson. “He always explained things if I needed it.”
Henderson returned home to Fredericksburg in April 2013. Now, he said, “It’s the best I’ve felt in ages.” Before the surgeries, “I couldn’t walk maybe five feet.” Now, he says, “I can go up and down the stairs. I can walk to the mall.” He celebrated the debut of The Incredible Bionic Man with friends. “We went to a big sports bar and watched it on a big-screen t.v.”
Filmmaker Pope explained that “this documentary aims to celebrate the incredible benefits prosthetic technologies are bringing to people’s lives, but also explore the ethical implications of their development and what this revolution might mean for society as a whole.”
Dovetailing with the film’s debut, the bionic man constructed in the film was displayed at the Comic Con convention and then at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
For more information about the exhibit, and to view the film online, please visit SmithsonianChannel.com.