An Unsung Hero Gets Some Due

Dr. Walt Lillehei, who died last summer at age 80, was one of the unsung heroes of modern medicine--the father of the cardiac surgery procedures that led to the transplants and bypasses which are commonplace today. Although he never became a household name, Lillehei’s pioneering efforts helped better-known surgeons such as South Africa’s Dr. Christiaan Barnard and Stanford University’s Dr. Norman Shumway push heart transplant surgery forward.

Author G. Wayne Miller got the idea for his book after hearing Lillehei give a talk at Harvard Medical School in 1992. The author felt compelled to learn more about the doctor’s daring. His book traces the dramatic stories of Lillehei’s successes and failures, based on hundreds of interviews with colleagues, patients and the friends and families of those no longer alive. It skillfully intersperses those stories with clear descriptions of how the heart works and the basics of what these risk-taking surgeons were trying to accomplish.

As Miller describes him, Lillehei was a complex character, full of extraordinary drive and flaws. A veteran of World War II and a survivor of lymphatic cancer, which struck in his early 30s, Lillehei’s experiences defying death gave him fearlessness, confidence and a swagger that brought nearly as much criticism as praise as he pushed the envelope in his professional and personal lives. As a boy in his hometown of Edina, Minn., Lillehei loved to tinker with his hands and would take apart and reassemble cars and motorcycles. Although he skipped two grammar school grades, Lillehei was an average high school student who nearly flunked chemistry. He entered the University of Minnesota at age 16 and soared when he got involved in medicine, graduating near the top of his class.

At the University Hospital of Minnesota, he found his niche under chief of surgery Owen Wangensteen, who approved many risky procedures that Lillehei (a Norwegian name pronounced Lilla-high) developed on dogs before trying them on humans. With gripping detail, Miller’s book takes the reader inside the hospital’s walls back in the 1950s and 1960s. He shows us anxious parents waiting to see if their desperately ill children would be the lucky ones that Lillehei could save. His heart surgeries were high-wire acts performed without a net. And with the instincts of a good showman, his academic lectures included photos of his grateful patients, not shot in hospital gowns, but dressed in cowboy and cowgirl outfits.

Using unconventional, bare-bones equipment--including beer hoses that connected the circulatory system of an ailing child to that of a healthy adult--Lillehei plunged his gloved hands deep into the human heart to repair the holes and other defects that were killing young children. As Miller, a reporter for the Providence (R.I.) Journal newspaper and author of several nonfiction books, describes in harrowing detail, the procedures often failed.


But over time, working with engineers and electricians, Lillehei developed better and better devices, like heart-lung machines and pacemakers. Attentive, creative and compassionate in his work, Lillehei also had a taste for the fast life: his wife’s face was badly injured in a speeding accident, and he became known in the medical world for his pub-crawling and extramarital dalliances.

Those excesses became public during his 1973 trial for tax evasion.