Famous Names

Dr. C Walton Lillehei

This month, for the third edition of “Famous Names in Public Health!” This month I will focus on the medical side of healthcare by recognizing a figure who contributed significantly to the treatment of cardiac conditions. I have been reading “The Heart Healers” by Dr. James Forrester and have loved his story telling manner when describing the history of cardiac surgery, so I decided to choose a notable figure outlined in the story as the focus for this month’s segment. This man is Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, the father of open heart surgery.

In the years leading up to modern open heart surgery techniques, the field underwent many changes. Methods that were used in the 1950s are almost unfathomable by todays standards and ethics. However, it was in this time period that truly innovative (and dangerous) techniques were a long standing component in the quest for successful open heart surgery. Dr.Lillehei primarily focused on the yet-unsolved challenges to treating what were known as “blue babies,” or infants and children born with congenital heart defects that could not be repaired through medical treatment or closed heart surgery. These children often suffered symptoms of their disease without relief and were given the equivalent of a death sentence. While doctors could diagnose the conditions, they could do little to prevent the progression of the disease as structural problems in the heart failed to keep up with the demands of the patient’s growing body. Essentially, many of these children died due to an inability to efficiently pump blood to vital organs.

Dr.Lillehei was a pioneer in the development of heart-lung bypass systems and open heart surgery. In 1954, Dr. Lillehei performed the first successful open heat surgery using cross circulation with the father of the patient as the source of oxygenated blood. This method was used throughout numerous surgeries and put the “donor” at great risk of harm or injury, so the method was quickly abandoned as other forms of blood oxygenation developed. Dr.Lillehei was involved in the progression of open heart surgery methods moving forward. He helped implement the bubble oxygenator, hypothermia techniques, cardiac pacemakers and prosthetic heart valves. While some of these techniques are no longer used and the surgical devices he used have since undergone many changes to increase effectiveness, safety, and efficiency, Dr.Lillehei’s early involvement in cardiac care altered the trajectory of cardiac surgery, launching us into the future of medicine.

His career impacted many patients, medical staff, and physicians alike as he was active in academic and hospital administration positions throughout his career. After working as a surgeon at University of Minnesota Medical School , he served as the chairman of the department of surgery at Cornell University Medical Center and surgeon in chief at New York Hospital. He later returned to the University of Minnesota Medical Center and additionally served as chairman of the American College of Cardiology. The American Heart Association notes Dr.Lillehei’s lasting impact by stating, ” First- and second-generation Lillehei trainees have developed important techniques in transplantation, perfusion, coronary artery bypass, prosthetic valves, and congenital heart surgery.” This recognizes the lasting impact he had on cardiac surgery far beyond his own individual practice, research, and years of surgery.

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