MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Fifty years ago today, doctors at University Hospital saved the life of a 5-year-old girl -- and made history.
The girl, a daughter of carnival workers, was underweight and had been sick most of her life. Her heart was enlarged and doctors believed there was an abnormal hole between its upper chambers. To fix it, surgeon F. John Lewis decided to use a technique he'd only tried in the laboratory.
That operation on Sept. 2, 1952, became the world's first successful open-heart surgery.
And it was the first in an amazing series of heart-related advances at the University of Minnesota medical school in the 1950s.
In the spring of 1954, C. Walton Lillehei, one of Lewis' assistants in the 1952 operation, performed the first open-heart surgery using a bypass technique to keep blood flowing in the patient. That technique evolved to become the standard, allowing longer operations in which doctors could fix more complex defects.
In 1955, Lillehei and Richard DeWall used a dairy pump and beer tubing for a prototype heart-lung machine, the now-common device that performs the heart's functions during open-heart surgery.
And in 1957, at Lillehei's request, an equipment repairman named Earl Bakken created the first heart pacemaker. Bakken modified a design for a metronome he'd seen in a magazine.
At nearly every step, there were complications, sometimes leading to the death of patients. But the doctors were encouraged and protected by Owen Wangensteen, chief of the surgery department and an innovator himself, best known for a device to remove abdominal obstructions that became popular with World War II military doctors.
In creating an environment for innovation, Wangensteen attracted surgeon-scientists from around the world to the university. He presided over weekly meetings, spurring the doctors to bounce new ideas off each other and collaborate with other institutions, particularly the nearby Mayo Clinic.
"He was a great researcher, but he recognized and provided unselfish opportunities for younger surgeons," says Chip Bolman, who is now chief of the cardiovascular surgery department at the medical school. "A less visionary and selfless leader would have squelched the development of open-heart surgery."
The accomplishments changed the lives of millions. In 1999, the latest year for which statistics are available, doctors in the United States alone performed 753,000 open-heart surgeries, or more than 2,000 a day, according to the American Heart Association.
And they reshaped Minnesota's economy. Today, more than 200,000 Minnesotans work in health care institutions and medical device companies, about the number of people who worked on farms in the state in 1952. Bakken in 1960 started Medtronic Inc., which today is the largest medical device company, and Lillehei in the 1970s became medical director of St. Jude Medical Inc., pioneer of heart valves.
Lillehei, who died in 1999, and Richard Varco, another pioneering heart surgeon in the 1950s, continued to routinely visit and provide ideas to the medical school in the 1990s, says Dick Bianco, director of its department of experimental surgery. "To me, the legacy is immediate," he says.
Deborah Powell, the new dean of the medical school, says its history of innovations is one reason she applied for the post. "We're still seeing a lot of those things," Powell says. "Some of the things in neuroscience are very exciting. With stem cell research, we're going to see ways to repair organs non-invasively. The basic research at the university is really at the forefront of that."
After consulting with the patients and doctors who remain from that era, university officials decided to commemorate all the heart-related successes of the 1950s in the spring of 2004, at the 50th anniversary of Lillehei's standard-setting operation.
But they began on this day in 1952, when the State Fair was winding down in St. Paul, the town of Kasson was getting ready for a visit by presidential candidates Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson and Walt Disney was advertising its new movie "Robin Hood."
As described in G. Wayne Miller's 2000 book "King of Hearts," Lewis and his colleagues placed a refrigerated, rubber blanket around the girl and slowly began to cool her body. At normal temperature, brain damage starts to occur four minutes after the heart stops. With the girl's body at a lower temperature, Lewis and his team believed they might have as much as 10 minutes to operate.
When her temperature dropped to 82.4 degrees, the threshold where a person can still breathe without assistance, Lewis opened her chest and stopped the flow of blood to and from her heart.
Then, he cut a hole on one side of her heart, looked in and found the abnormal opening. He stitched it shut, tested it for leaks, found one, closed it and then closed the first hole he'd made to get inside the heart.
Lewis removed the clamps that blocked the blood flow and restarted the girl's heart. It had been stopped for 5 1/2 minutes.
The surgeons closed her chest, lifted her off the table and warmed her in water that filled a metal tub Lewis had ordered from the Sears catalog.
She grew up to raise two children with normal, healthy hearts.
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