If you were about to undergo open heart surgery and the surgeon brandishing the scalpel was suffering from a powerful hangover after binge drinking the night before, you’d leap off the operating table and bolt for the exit as fast as your ailing heart would allow, wouldn’t you?
Well, no, not if the scalpel was in the hand of Dr. C. Walt Lillehei, one of the great pioneers of heart surgery in the 1950s, who practiced at the University of Minnesota hospital.
Lillehei, who in one documented case had four double martinis before supper and then three more for the road the night before an operation, was a daredevil, a “party animal who didn’t mind working outside the law,” according to writer Gabriel Brownstein. “Looking clammy and sweaty” in the operating room the next morning after that night of imbibing, Lillehei repaired a hole in a small child’s heart “superbly and successfully,” one doctor recalled.
It took centuries from the time the heart was discovered to be a muscle and deformities were observed until doctors had the knowledge, the tools and the moral courage to open the heart, repair it and make it beat again. And Lillehei, who became known as “the father of open heart surgery,” was foremost among a cast of extraordinary surgeons, pediatricians, researchers and device inventors who — in an era when TVs were still black and white — figured out how to venture inside the body and begin mending broken hearts.
The history of heart surgery is told in “The Open Heart Club” as both a supremely risky scientific adventure and as a personal memoir by Brownstein, who underwent open heart surgery as a child and again as an adult because of congenital heart disease.
“Heart surgery began with kids like me, and it began in Minnesota,” Brownstein writes. And not just in one place in Minnesota, but in three — the U, the Mayo Clinic and an electronics repair shop operating out of a garage in northeast Minneapolis, where Earl Bakken (a co-founder of Medtronic) created the first ever implanted electronic medical device, in consult with Lillehei.
Though Minnesotans hold pride of place in heart surgery advances, the others profiled in “The Open Heart Club” are memorable and deserving of honor in their own right. They include a deaf, dyslexic pediatrician who listened to kids’ heartbeats with her fingertips, a surgeon who was blind in one eye and hid that fact from colleagues and patients, an African-American technician who created groundbreaking surgical techniques and tools despite working in the dehumanizing grip of Jim Crow laws, and a Nazi who shared a Nobel Prize.
Though there are plenty of necessary biology lessons in the book, Brownstein — a novelist who teaches fiction writing at St. John’s University in New York — employs his storyteller’s skills deftly so that it doesn’t read like a medical journal.
And really, how could it, when it includes tales like this: Before the advent of the heart-lung machine, Lillehei performed operations on children in which the child and a parent lay on side-by-side operating tables with beer keg tubing connecting the child’s circulatory system to the parent’s — whose heart beat for both of them while the child’s heart was repaired.
The procedure doubled the risks of infection, brain damage, or death — an operation on a single patient that, as the chair of the U Department of Medicine observed, could result in a 200% mortality rate.
And once, when Lillehei couldn’t find a willing adult with matching blood type, he used the lung of a dog to oxygenate a little boy’s blood during the bypass surgery. The boy survived.
Dennis J. McGrath is a former editor at the Star Tribune.