Walton Lilleheis Legacy

OPEN-HEART SURGERY WAS NOT I possible when Dr. C. Walton Lillehei completed his surgical training. Indeed, Lillehei had only switched into medical school at the last minute, veering away from pre-dentistry at the University of Minnesota. As did a select group of surgeons around the world, Lillehei spent much of his early career trying to find a practical way to conduct open-heart surgery. This led him to the novel idea of cross circulation, or using one person's circulation to support that of another, while heart surgery was performed.

For his first patient, he selected "an infant who was about one year of age and had been in the hospital most of his life," Lillehei remembered in a 1999 interview.

Around the same time, ninety miles away, Dr. John Kirklin and his team at the Mayo Clinic were working on a machine that would support patients during cardiopulmonary bypass — and the competition between the teams was fierce.

Walton Lillehei Cross Circulation

"There was significant competition, obviously," Lillehei commented during a 1999 interview. "Kirklin knew the schedule that we were going on, and we didn't operate on Saturday, and they did. So our team was inclined to go down to the Mayo Clinic on Saturday and see what was going on!"

Before long, both teams were using different forms of bypass successfully, and, for more than a year, they were the only ones in the world performing open-heart surgeries. Throughout this time, doctors traveled from all over the world to see the first open-heart operations and their incredible results.

With Kirklin's success with the machine, however, Lillehei began a slow transition away from cross circulation and toward a heart-lung machine of his own design. In the beginning, Lillehei used the heart-lung machine for the simpler, more straightforward cases and continued using cross-circulation, with which he was more familiar, for the more serious cases.

Along with his own pioneering work, Lillehei, who passed away on July 5, 1999, had another lasting effect. Beginning in 1952, he was involved in the training of more than 150 cardiac surgeons at the University of Minnesota. These young physicians came from the U.S., Canada, and thirty-nine other countries, and many have become preeminent in their field and have gone on to make important contributions in their own rights.

Dr. C. Walton Lillehei (opposite page), working at the University of Minnesota, developed a novel technique of cardiopulmonary bypass called cross circulation, in which the circulation of one person is used to support that of another during an open-heart operation. It was used successfully in sick children.

John Kirklin

Ductus Arteriosus:

A tube connecting the pulmonary artery to the aorta. After birth, when the lungs begin to function, this tube normally closes. If it stays open, the condition is known as patent duc-tus arteriosus. Over time, this can cause problems such as heart failure and may need to be surgically closed.

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