The day before my aortic valve was to be replaced, my wife and I met with the surgeon. He explained that he would be inserting a cow valve and by that he meant not an actual valve from a cow but a manufactured valve made from cow tissue. I had been reading about the medical use of cow valves and pig valves and had assumed such phrases referred (as do expressions like “kidney transplant”) to an entire part of an animal or person, not just a component material. Gone suddenly were faint images of hearts plucked from sacrificial animals to bring courage and strength to young warriors.
A bigger surprise came a week later. At home was a note from the hospital explaining that the new valve was an “implanted device” and as such came with a model number and a serial number that are registered with the manufacturer. The information was listed on an enclosed card that I was asked to carry with me.
A serial number for my new heart valve! Why was I surprised that my “cow valve” turned out to be so utterly a technological commodity that it carried a model number and a serial number just as would a refrigerator? The realms of the natural, the mechanical, and the manufactured had come together in ways that I was not prepared for. My original and human heart valve had served a function that was essentially mechanical; it was a piece of plumbing. So maybe it should not have surprised me that a new valve, doing the same job, could be made from an unexpected combination of other materials and other creatures.
People, like all living things, try to sustain their lives by all possible means–including miraculous surgery and heart valves with serial numbers.