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Walking history

At age five, Merrilyn Dawson underwentant experimental surgery to repair her heart condition. And 63 years later, doctors repaired the same condition with a much less painful procedure.

One woman’s heart condition is repaired with two very different procedures—63 years apart

Merrilyn Dawson doesn’t need to see the list of “firsts” in heart surgery to know that the University of Minnesota is a leader in the field. Instead, she is living proof of the University’s innovations—and has the newspaper clippings to prove it.

In 1943, when she was just five years old, Dawson made medical history when she underwent an experimental surgery at the former University of Minnesota Hospital to tie off a leaking blood vessel that led to her heart. “I remembered being very cold and lots of bright lights, and above there was a gallery full of people,” says Dawson.

About six decades later, Dawson’s doctors informed her that the artery was leaking again due to the same condition: patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). The sutures from the original surgery had probably come loose, though doctors weren’t sure when. They just knew the artery needed to be fixed. And soon.

Dawson came back to the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview last April for another procedure. But this time—63 years later—the leaky artery was repaired using now-standard, much less painful heart catheterization. Through a leg catheter, doctors put a tiny device in Dawson’s blood vessel to close the hole, and just a few hours later, she was ready to go home.

The tiny device that mended Dawson’s heart is the Amplatzer® septal occluder, which was invented by Kurt Amplatz, M.D., a retired professor of radiology, and was tested in clinical trials at the University of Minnesota in the late 1990s.

“It’s a miracle that this was invented and that I was alive to benefit from it,” Dawson says.

The differences between the two procedures couldn’t be greater. Dawson’s 1943 surgery was one of the first of its kind in the country. Performed by legendary surgeon Owen Wangensteen, M.D., Ph.D.—years before the first successful open-heart surgery—the procedure was considered highly experimental.

After many hours in surgery, Wangensteen ran down the hallway toward Dawson’s mother. “He was waving his arms, saying, ‘It’s a success! It’s a success,’” says Dawson. And when her mother started to thank him, he said, “Don’t thank me. Thank God.”

After that surgery, Dawson stayed in the hospital for a week under the supervision of two full-time nurses. In those days, surgeons went into the body through the ribs and physically tied off the leak, leaving behind a large chest scar, says John Bass, M.D., the University pediatric cardiologist who performed Dawson’s second procedure. (Most heart lesions, such as PDAs, are now repaired during a child’s first years of life.)

“When she went through this 63 years ago, it was very difficult,” Bass says. “I don’t think she understood how easy this [second procedure] was going to be until it was over. And that’s understandable considering what she went through the first time.”

But easy it was. Dawson was under conscious sedation throughout the 2.5-hour heart catheterization, so she could hear Bass tell his team when the Amplatzer® device had fixed the leak. “That was a wonderful feeling,” she says.

Dawson didn’t even need stitches, just pressure on her leg where the catheter was inserted to stop the bleeding. Because this is now considered an outpatient procedure, after a few hours of observation, Dawson was on her way home.

And for the big difference this simple procedure has made in her life, she is grateful. “If it weren’t for medical research, these things wouldn’t happen,” Dawson says. “I set a goal when my grandson was born eight years ago that I wanted to see him grow into a man, and now I probably will.”

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