Sixteen years after publication, my fifth book, KING OF HEARTS: The True Story of the Maverick Who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery, continues to be read, sold, and receive reader acclaim on Amazon, with a 4.8 of 5 stars rating. This, in addition to the extensive praise by critics when it was published. I thank them all! KING OF HEARTS remains, shall we say, very dear to my heart. I was privileged to be able to tell this story.
I regularly receive email from readers, most recently from a high school student in Minneapolis who is writing a History Day project on the invention of open-heart surgery, chronicled in KING OF HEARTS. This is a tribute to the late Dr. C. Walton Lillehei -- and his courage and conviction.
The student who reached out to me asked several spot-on questions, and here are two, with my answers:
1. How do you think Lillehei’s discoveries transformed Minnesota’s medical industry and the world? What was the reaction like from people at the time?
Here was a man who with surgical genius, iron will, extraordinary perseverance and an inability to take no for an answer conquered the last great surgical frontier of that time – one could argue, of all time. Truly, open-heart surgery was the Wild West when he began, and it was a civilized place, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, when he was done. The transformation was revolutionary, far-reaching, and the root of many industries and professions we now take for granted.
Reaction? Some though he was crazy, even murderous (I get into this in King of Hearts in some detail). Others – the parents of dying and previously doomed kids – thought him a savior, even God, almost literally. Some colleagues envied him, others tried to thwart him and the smart ones wanted to be on his team, or at least study with him. The media? Went wild. I chose the chapter 10 title deliberately: “Lourdes in Minneapolis.”
5. How did he deal with pressure from the medical community and the pressure of when he ran into deaths of patients?
Having faced death himself – first, during combat in the Second World War and then with his own cancer – Walt was fearless. He really was. He knew that the road he had chosen would be filled with danger and loss, but he had to travel it to get to a time, a set of techniques and a technology where millions of lives would be saved. So, he just kept going. Got up every morning and fought the dragon, as it were. Eventually, it was slain.