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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

C. Walton Lillehei, King of Hearts

Norman Edward Shumway is considered the king of heart transplantation. At the University of Minnesota in the 1950s, he and Christiaan Barnard, who later would perform the world's first heart transplant, worked under the guidance of Walt Lillehei, the father of open heart surgery and the man behind the pacemaker. By the time they met him, Lillehei had already received a Bronze Medal and a European Theatre Ribbon with five battle stars for his work as an Army doctor in Italy in World War II, and had beaten cancer -- lymphosarcoma -- despite only a chance of 5% to 10% of survival at age 31. That led to a willingness to take risks, which would advance cardiology -- and almost ruin his personal life.

Born on October 23, 1918, in Minneapolis, Lillehei was the son of a dentist and was all set to follow his father's footsteps when World War II thrust the young doctor into the battlefield. He quickly rose from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel, earning military distinction as well as medical experience.

"In 1945, he returned to the University of Minnesota and completed his residency under the direction of Dr. Owen Wangensteen, then chairman of the Department of Surgery. Wangensteen promoted close collaboration between surgeons and physiologists and insisted that all surgeons participate in laboratory research. During his tenure as chairman, his department provided a stimulating creative environment that attracted many brilliant young surgeons. Wangensteen became Walt Lillehei’s special mentor and champion," wrote his friend Dr. Denton A. Cooley in his memory.

Wangensteen had a great influence on Lillehei.

“As I look back, there seems to me far more large numbers of institutions which were far better equipped in terms of having worked on the problem longer, perhaps the staff were more prestigious, particularly some of the universities in the East. People have often asked why did it start in Minnesota, and I think that probably, as I look back, there are two basic reasons. One is — we had excellent facilities in the sense that the world’s first heart hospital was built in Minnesota and opened its doors, actually, in March 1951. The other, I think, was the presence of Dr. Wangensteen as Chairman, Department of Surgery… Basically, I refer to the fact that he had an unusual knack of spotting talent in people who didn’t even know they had talent at all. And many of those people that he selected as residents were rejects from other places because they didn’t fit the conventional mold of a surgical fellow. But, in Dr. Wangensteen’s eyes, they had some particular thing that he thought was very favorable to surgery,” Lillehei said in an interview in 1979.

Just as heart surgery was opening its doors to him, cancer was closing in.

"Lillehei had cancer in his neck. More specifically, he was diagnosed with lymphosarcoma in the parotid, or salivary, gland. His medical colleagues knew better than to sugarcoat things. They gave him a 10 percent chance of surviving five years. He was 31. Wangensteen was among the surgeons who removed a chunk of his neck the day Lillehei completed his senior residency in 1950. Grueling radiation therapy followed and, although he recovered slowly and fully, the cancer left him disfigured with a crooked neck," wrote historian Curt Brown.

Tom Anderson, a funeral director in Alexandria, Minnesota, told Brown, “From what I’ve learned, he told the surgeons to just cut the cancer out of his carotid artery, despite the risks. And that led him to take chances because he didn’t think he’d even be around.”

Anderson was a big fan. He was 5 when Dr. Lillehei fixed his heart.

Lillehei regained his health and concentrated on cardiac surgery. The cancer also left him with a change in attitude. He took risks, knowing he did not have long to live. He also had a personality seldom associated with the stereotype of top-notch surgeons: humility.

"There are a couple of things in Walt Lillehei's character that I believe are monumentally important. The first is that he knows no envy. There isn't an envious bone in his body. Anything that anybody else does, does not arouse this emotion of envy, which I think can be found in almost every other living human being. So Walt Lillehei was totally without envy of anyone else's contributions or efforts, work or whatever you want to call it," Dr. Shumway said in 1986

"Now this other thing that he taught me about surgery in the operating room, and this was entirely different from the big-time surgeons who preceded him in all kinds of work, and that was he never became upset in the operating room, no matter how difficult the situation was, or how bad the bleeding was, or as he'd say, sometimes the bleeding was so bad you could hear it, and nevertheless, Walt Lillehei never got upset in the operating room. He never blamed other people who were trying to help him in the operating room for events which they were clearly responsible for.

"So one of his favorite saying was, 'Don't panic.' And I must say, I was with him in those very early days, as were Herb Warden and of course, Morley Cohen, and some others including even Dick Varco, but I never saw Walt Lillehei upset or panic even under the most extreme problems that could develop acutely in the operating room. My whole approach to surgery really, I guess, is based on that advice, if you will, from Walt Lillehei back 30 years ago in 1956."

It's amazing that the one thing of most import that the father of open heart surgery passed along to the father of heart transplantation was to not panic. And don't envy. Shumway learned what he saw.

In pioneering open-heart surgery, Lillehei worked on the youngest patients.

"Lillehei went on to head the team that performed, on March 26, 1954, the world's first open-heart operation using cross-circulation. In that also-historic operation at the University of Minnesota, 13-month-old Gregory Glidden underwent successful repair of a large ventricular defect; his father was temporarily hooked up to take over the pumping and oxygenating functions of his son's heart. Sadly, the child died 11 days later of pneumonia, even though his heart defect had been successfully closed. But during the next year, with amazing long-term success, Lillehei and his team used cross-circulation for more than 40 open-heart operations, which included the world's first surgical repairs of the atrioventricular canal and tetralogy of Fallot," wrote medical historian Mary Knatterud.

Lillehei's team that day included Drs. Cohen, Varco and Warden. Over the next 18 months the team would do this another 45 times. Most patients were 2 or younger. Most survived. The team won the 1955 Albert Lasker Award in medical research. Th world of medicine had advanced to the betterment of mankind.

In 1957, Lillehei and Earl Bakken, an electrical technician at the hospital, introduced the first transistorized, wearable permanent cardiac pacemaker. Dr. Lillehei also designed several heart valve prostheses, including the Lillehei-Kaster and St. Jude Medical valves. Bakken meanwhile co-founded Medtronic, which is now the world's third-largest medical device manufacturer.

In his career, Lillehei would teach 150 cardiac surgeons from over 40 countries.

However, at 55, the height of his career, his eyesight began giving way and he left surgery in 1973. Meanwhile, the taxman caught up with him that same year. The charges of tax evasion against him included a scandal of extramarital affairs  and expensive sports cars. He lived his life as if he were on borrowed time -- and we all are -- and that was to the advancement of cardiovascular medicine but also to the detriment of his personal life. However, his wife, Kay Lindberg Lillehei, stood beside him and weathered the humiliation, remaining married to him for 52 years until his death at age 80.

After paying a hefty fine and performing six months of community service, Dr. Lillehei served as medical director of the St. Jude Medical Heart Valve Division for the last 20 years of his life. Even though he could no longer perform surgery, he could save lives with the medical valves he perfected.

NOTE: The first volume of Exceptional Americans, published by Amazon's Create Space, is now available.


  1. I ask again, how DO you find these amazing people?

  2. Don, you need to ban this Ala Uddin dude. He's using your site to spread a nasty religion and advertising to boot.

  3. Sam, they are all over the place. The sick cultures of modern media and education deny the reality of so many great people living in a land that gives them the opportunity to accomplish what they can.

    All credit to the Sage of Poco for finding these people and telling us about them. I love being reminded of what our world and our people are really like.