Tiffany Slayton relishes the oft-told story about the day her father, shopping at Byerly’s, helped save the life of a stranger felled by a heart attack.
Dr. Joseph Garamella, she said, “revived this person, waited long enough to hand off to the paramedics — then calmly kept on shopping.”
It was so telling, she said, that this man heading home from his exalted position as a pioneering open-heart surgeon, with thousands of operations to his credit, was also “making a daily habit of stopping on his way home from work each and every night for fresh food for dinner.”
Garamella, of Hopkins and Maple Plain, died of natural causes on June 21 at the age of 97.
Family members describe him as the epitome of the American dream: the product of a family of Italian immigrants so poor that the six children sewed buttons on garments to put food on the table, and who was chosen by the family as the one who would go to college and pursue the most ambitious of dreams.
A 2003 retrospective in the magazine of the Minnesota Medical Association cast Garamella as one of a generation of physicians, who — along with Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, the third American surgeon to perform open-heart surgery — made Minnesota a national center for cardiac operations.
A 1957 operation he performed on a 13-year-old girl’s heart valve may have been the first of its kind in the U.S.
But as nearly a dozen family members demonstrated Wednesday at his funeral mass, each carrying a memento of his life and their relationship, he was more than that. The Rev. Paul Jarvis spoke of Garamella as a man of heart in more ways than those simply involving his work.
Born in Bridgeport, Conn., Garamella graduated from the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass., and then earned a medical degree from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., in 1945. He was in the U.S. Naval Reserve medical corps from 1942 to 1948.
In the 1950s he trained as a surgeon at the University of Minnesota and performed open-heart procedures at Mount Sinai and Northwestern hospitals, where he became known for groundbreaking work in congenital heart defects.
In 1959, he moved to St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis, though he had staff privileges at 12 Twin Cities hospitals.
For most of his career, he held academic appointments in the U’s Department of Surgery and he trained multitudes of physicians — including Jarvis’ own heart specialist, who, the priest said, marvels to this day at the generation of pioneers like Garamella who “lacked the gadgetry doctors have today and in a pinch might just head down to the maintenance department to find a pump.”
Granddaughter Quinta Johnson, of South Jordan, Utah, now a nurse, said his passion for his work led more than one of his children to “get to see him perform surgeries, although some had more stomach for the sight than others.”
His composure in surgery led him to be nicknamed “Cool Hand Luke” by his nurses, family members said.
He married twice: first, in 1946, to Christine Bouchard, with whom he had five children; then in 1979 to Jacqueline Hodges. He bred champion horses and cattle at a farm in Maple Plain. He retired in 2007.
Besides his wife, Jacqueline, he is survived by daughters Paula Tiner, of Graeagle, Calif.; Tonja Garamella, of Boca Raton, Fla.; and Tiffany Slayton, of Baltimore; a sister, Laura Garamella Rossignol, of Stratford, Conn.; and 11 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.