C. Walton Lillehei‚ M.D.‚ Ph.D.‚ known to many as “the father of open-heart surgery‚” earned all five of his degrees at the University of Minnesota. His widow‚ Katherine “Kaye” Lillehei‚ earned two degrees in nursing here. His brothers are all University graduates‚ as are their wives.
“The University is close to us‚” Kaye Lillehei says. “It enveloped all of us.”
In fact‚ Walt and Kaye met while Walt was an intern at Minneapolis General Hospital and Kaye was taking nursing classes there through the University. Kaye still remembers the first time she saw her future husband.
“He was younger than the other doctors‚” she says. “He had white-blond hair and a pressed white uniform. All of the other doctors had wrinkled uniforms‚ but his was just so.”
And even before he participated in several “world firsts” in heart surgery at the University—including the first successful open-heart surgery using cross-circulation and creation of the heartlung machine‚ pacemaker‚ and mechanical heart valve—Kaye Lillehei knew that Walt was a creative person. But what impressed her more was his demeanor with patients.
“I don’t know if that’s important‚ but it was to me‚” she says.
Walt and Kaye (Lindberg) Lillehei were married in 1946 and had four children. During the 1950s‚ a time rich in medical experimentation and breakthroughs‚ Walt Lillehei and his colleagues would often have their postmortem conferences at the Lilleheis’ home across the river in St. Paul. “It was very‚ very exciting‚” Kaye says.
When Walt Lillehei died in 1999‚ Kaye wanted to honor his accomplishments at the University and show gratitude for the education their family had received. So‚ making the largest gift in University history at the time‚ she pledged $13 million to create the Lillehei Heart Institute (LHI) and another $3 million to create the Katherine R. and C. Walton Lillehei Endowed Chair in Nursing Leadership.
Thanks to Kaye Lillehei’s gift‚ the LHI has brought together researchers from several disciplines to translate new cardiovascular knowledge into treatments and prevention strategies for patients more quickly than they would have been able to working independently‚ says LHI executive director Daniel J. Garry‚ M.D.‚ Ph.D.
“The generosity of Kaye Lillehei has invigorated the spirit of discovery in the studies of stem cell biology‚ cell therapies‚ and regenerative medicine‚” he says.