September 1, 1952
“In 1952, after a long process of study, research, experimentation, and practice, Dr. Lillehei performed the first successful open-heart surgery on a human patient who survived.” *
To be more accurate, Dr. Lillehei assisted his colleague and close personal friend at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Floyd John Lewis in this first procedure. Dr. Lewis innovated the model of inducing hypothermia in his patients to slow the de-oxygenation of their blood during the the time the heart is stopped during surgery. While successful, they learned this model’s restricted time window, about ten minutes, was insufficient to deal with problems and complications of open-heart surgery. Dr. Lillehei sought new ways to overcome these limitations. **
For the sake of brevity, I chose to cite the wonderful synopsis written by Andrew B. Stone for the MNopedia tool of the Minnesota Historical Society below. The productivity, innovation, and advancements made by Lillehei and his expert colleagues, friends and collaborators at the University of Minnesota is so staggering that I would be remiss to provide an inaccurate source. Enjoy!
Lillehei graduates from the University of Minnesota Medical School and joins the army as a surgeon in a mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) unit.
Lillehei returns to University of Minnesota Medical School as a surgical resident under the supervision of Dr. Owen Wangensteen, chairman of the Department of Surgery.
Lillehei finishes his Ph.D. in surgery and becomes a professor of surgery at the University of Minnesota.
On September 2, Lillehei assists his friend and colleague Dr. John Lewis in performing the world’s first successful open-heart surgery.
Dr. John Gibbon performs a successful open-heart surgery in Philadelphia using an artificial heart-lung machine, but these machines are difficult to use and open-heart surgery remains very dangerous. Several surgeons abandon plans for future operations.
Lillehei and his research assistant, Morley Cohen, seize on the idea of using cross-circulation to perform open-heart surgery, and begin experimenting with dogs in their lab.
On March 26, Lillehei performs the world’s first successful open-heart surgery using cross-circulation on thirteen-month-old Gregory Glidden. Glidden dies eleven days later, but an autopsy confirms that his heart defect had been successfully repaired.
Lillehei performs two more successful open-heart surgeries. He announces these successes at a press conference and becomes world-famous.
In collaboration with Dr. Richard DeWall, Lillehei helps to develop a simpler heart-lung machine and oxygen bubbler, making open-heart surgery safer.
On December 9, Lillehei performs his 100th open-heart surgery, but the patient dies after surgery due to heart block.
Lillehei asks Earl Bakken, an electrician at the University of Minnesota, to create a portable, battery-powered device to cure heart block by regulating heartbeat using electricity. (Author’s note: Bakken went on to found the Minnesota-based company Medtronic; a world innovator in pacemakers and medical technology.) ****
On April 14, Lillehei successfully implants the world’s first portable pacemaker into a patient with heart block, saving the patient’s life.” ***
In the end, we may gain the greatest insights into this event and Dr. Lillehei through an interview with his son. Dr. Craig Lillehei, a pediatric surgeon at Boston children’s hospital, said the following about his father ca. 2014.
“The striking thing about him is that he wasn’t afraid of new ideas. And even sometimes crazy ideas. That he would fully consider them and work through it and see, that sometimes doing some experimentation and whatnot, to find out whether they made sense or not. I think that was number one. I think that number two is that he, sort of, knew the big goals and relentlessly pursued those.” *
Shall we begin our supplications by remembering the ancient nature of surgery? Egypt provided the human race with the first written accounts of human surgeries ca. 17th B.C., so all medical research is standing on the shoulders of at least about 3700 years of similar trial and error. We gratefully recount this foundation that provided the basis for modern scientific surgery, Lord! *
We follow that gratitude with a second praise; that You made Dr. Lillehei eternally curious! This man, whose formal education won him five degrees, remained open to new information, and scientifically embraced failures. Perhaps this is why he so consistently entertained solving “impossible” challenges?
In this, we see a refraction of Your nature and example, beloved Messiah. You astounded critics and cynics by embracing impossible outcomes.
“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:25,26 NIV
A tertiary triumph of the life of Dr. Clarence Walton Lillehei is his example of collaboration, basic trust, and extension of relationship. Though a formidable mind on his own, he forged new paths in science and surgery with friends. And oh, what a cast of incredible human beings he created with: Dr. Owen Wangensteen, Dr. Floyd John Lewis, Morley Cohen, Dr. Richard De Wall, and Earl Bakken to name a few. For these, and surely many others, the State of Minnesota and the human race gives You praise! May we be humbly joyful that You guided all these paths to discovery and greatness; together!
Conversely, we remember also the frailty of the human ego. Quite often, innovators in any field care most about big ideas, and truly want their expertise to better the human race. Being motivated such, it is crucifixion to be blocked or cut out of recognition and acknowledgement! It, for so many doctors and scientists, breaks their hearts and spirits because they are fueled by having a good name rather than wealth. Where we may have failed contributors to science and heart surgery in Lillehei’s era, Will You forgive us? Where corruption, academic pride, or greed trumped researchers, will You have mercy? Will You honor those who silently have contributed so much blessing on the present and future?
As a last thought, we ponder the innovation of cross-circulation. What an apt icon of lovingkindness and self-sacrifice? These scientists and surgeons survived epic wins and failures by providing each others brains with the oxygen of acknowledgement, belief, and radical commitment to their various projects.
In so doing, they cross-circulated the lives of patients with hope. They dreamed impossible dreams, even having to create new vocabulary to describe it to their peers and students. What is this but bringing oxygen to the minds and misbeliefs of others?
We see many present forces running counter to the lofty ideals of Dr. Lillehei. Politicians, more concerned with who gets credit than care, starves the brains of innovation. Insurance providers, sometimes heavily manipulated by the political class, become micro-managers of their patients willingness to risk, thus, starving the bloodstream of hope. We see the limitations of the collectivist utopians and social engineers stifling creative thought, depriving our creatives of the freedom to think. Who will think big and make mistakes in our present and future, if we culturally mandate “correct” thoughts? Are we forcing society into the paradigm of “10 minute heart surgery”?
No! We need more time to fix broken hearts! Ruach ha Kodesh, (Holy Spirt) call on Your counsel to heal us in our sufferings in Minnesota. Your Body, the Ekklesia, dies without collaboration and being present with You and each other! We suffer from arrhythmia of culture; we want to keep beating, but can’t seem to find a common tempo! Will You bless like Dr. Lillehei, to see how our hearts can beat for each other? All is possible in Your Kingdom! Only impart to us belief and basic trust in our fellow man’s heart! Amen.
- P.T.H. cites timeline formerly at this URL: mnhs.org/about/dipity_timeline.htm
The Minnesota Historical Society Web site, http://www.mnhs.org, is fantastic! Check it out! Images are from https://images.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl; again, an amazing resource!
** Learn more about Dr. F. John Lewis and C. Walton Lillehei. https://www.heart.umn.edu/about/c-walton-lillehei-phd-md
*** Stone, Andrew B. “Lillehei, C. Walton (1918–1999)”, Minnesota Historical Society. October 30, 2013. Please visit https://www.mnopedia.org/person/lillehei-c-walton-1918-1999 to read more about this amazing man and his incredibly innovated friends.
**** Investigate the phenomenal creativity of Earl Bakken and Medtronic. https://www.medtronic.com/us-en/about/history.html
Again, an excellent source of information packed into a brief 10 minute video. Jackson, Rebecca. “Clarence Walton Lillehei”, Internet. YouTube. May 1, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08BYT3jJUbQ