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Sixty years after heart surgery, a patient is still grateful for pioneering care

The surgeons who performed Jay Pearson's heart surgery in 1952 went on to establish the University as a world leader in the field. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

In 1952, Eisenhower became president, Hasbro introduced Mr. Potato Head, gas cost 20 cents a gallon, and, at the University of Minnesota, doctors performed the world’s first successful open-heart surgery.

En route to that medical milestone, these trailblazing doctors were exploring new territory and saving others who faced life-threatening heart conditions.

Jay Pearson was just 4 years old when he was admitted to the University’s Variety Club Children’s Heart Hospital on March 28, 1952, for an early heart surgery that preceded the history-making procedure by mere months. His memories of the time are vague: white-clad nurses wearing big, winged hats; glass bottles clinking on IV poles; syringes being sterilized in the flames of alcohol burners.

What he doesn’t remember is the procedure—a repair of coarctation of the aorta complicated by bacterial endocarditis—performed by pioneering surgeons C. Walton Lillehei, M.D., Ph.D., and Richard L. Varco, M.D., Ph.D., who went on to establish the University as a world leader in cardiac surgery.

Pearson, hale and hearty now in his 60s, was pronounced asymptomatic in 1956, and he spent his childhood running around like other boys, his heart pumping along just fine. He did stand out in one aspect, though: He has a scar that runs from chest to back, “almost like they cut me in half!”

“Other kids were always asking to see the scar,” laughs Pearson. “I was quite the attraction. Recently somebody on the beach in Florida asked me if my scars were from a shark attack.”

In 1994, University doctors asked Pearson to undergo a battery of tests as part of a follow-up program on very early heart patients. They decided he should see a cardiologist regularly; he now sees James Moller, M.D., and Cindy Martin, M.D., at the University’s Adult Congenital and Cardiovascular Genetics Clinic as well as Stephen Battista, M.D., at University of Minnesota Physicians Heart at Fairview. But he’s had no further surgeries.

“I was too little to appreciate what happened,” says Pearson. “But it’s amazing, isn’t it, that Lillehei was figuring this stuff out right when I needed him?”

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