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Lifesaving heart surgery five decades ago inspires a gift of gratitude

Tom Anderson’s most vivid memories of campus are of walking across the Washington Avenue bridge with his mother while he was recovering from a risky open-heart surgery in 1963. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

Though Tom Anderson is a University of Minnesota alumnus (’80 B.S.), his most vivid memories of campus are from his childhood.

“What I remember is going on walks along River Road, in front of Coffman [Memorial] Union, across the bridge to Northrop Mall with my mom,” he says. “I remember that like it was yesterday.”

That’s because in the fall of 1963, Anderson spent about a month at the Variety Club Heart Hospital after having a risky open-heart surgery to repair his congenital atrial septal defect, which causes reduced oxygen in the body’s blood supply and gets progressively worse. At the time, even under the skilled care of the University team that pioneered the procedure, it carried a 50-50 chance of success.

Anderson’s parents debated about whether then-5-year-old Tom should have the surgery. But with faith and confidence in legendary University surgeon and innovator C. Walton Lillehei, M.D., Ph.D., they decided to go ahead with it.

People in his hometown of Alexandria, Minnesota, pitched in to help the family, raising the 30 pints of blood he needed to have the surgery. (“I still keep a list to this day of the people who did that, just to remind me that, as you go through life, you can’t do everything alone,” Anderson says.)

The surgery was success, and Anderson has gone on to lead a pretty normal life. “My mother always pushed me to do as much as I could,” he says of his childhood. “I can remember her saying, ‘Tom, you can do that. Dr. Lillehei says it may be harder for you, but he says you can do that.’”

Since then, Anderson has graduated from college, taken over as the fourth-generation owner of his family’s funeral business, gotten married, and fathered two sons. He runs 3 miles every other day to help keep his heart healthy.

And he considers Lillehei a major reason behind it all. “My life has been a gift from that man,” he says.

Anderson admits that he didn’t fully realize the profound effect that Lillehei and the University had on him until later in life. “There’s really nothing I can do to pay the University back, to pay Dr. Lillehei back,” he says.

So instead, he’s paying it forward. In Lillehei’s honor, on the 50th anniversary of his surgery, Anderson made a generous gift to the University’s Lillehei Heart Institute to help fund the exploration of other novel ideas—ideas like Lillehei had back in the 1950s that ended up saving Anderson’s life and the lives of countless others.

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