Dr. Donald Effler and surgical team,
More writing on the wall, just for the record.
I was born with a congenital heart defect known as known as Tetralogy
of Fallot. In Tetralogy, as its name would suggest, there are four
defects in the heart — the primary two of which are a constriction of
the right aorta and problems with the valve, and a hole between the
chambers of the left and right ventricles. This later allows used
unoxygenated blood to seep through the septal defect and mix with
Back in the mid-50s medical science was going through a great
revolution. Major advances in diagnosis, surgical techniques, and
biotechnology were occurring at a rapid rate. Much of this was fueled by
new procedures developed in that little test laboratory called the
Korean War. What was learned there in mobile surgical hospitals out of
dire necessity filtered its way back to the States and was extended and
ultimately perfected in the years following the war.
The first open heart surgery was performed in 1955, the year I was
born. Surgical cardiology was going through a revolution but wasn't
quite advanced enough to tackle Tetralogy cases — especially in
children. What they were able to do then was go in and work on the
aorta (the Blalock-Taussig Shunt procedure). This was done when I was
one year old. As for the rest, it would have to wait.
By 1966 they had developed enough in medicine that they scheduled me
for open heart surgery to deal with what couldn't be fixed in 1956. All
of it was cutting edge stuff back then. In fact there were only 3 medical
centers at that point that handled such — one in Cleveland, one in
Boston, and the other in Houston. Cleveland being the closest to my
native city of Indianapolis, that's the one my dad chose. And so in
June of that year my dad took a vacation from work and we packed up
the car and headed for Cleveland. My surgery was to be with Dr. Donald
Effler, who at that time was world famous much like DeBakey was in
The main problem on checking into the Clinic was a case of poison ivy I
had contracted back home and couldn't seem to shake. And for a while
there it was worried that one of the most advanced surgical procedures
of the day might have to be postponed indefinitely due to a damn case of
poison ivy. But the doctors and nurses got right on that and hit it with
everything they had. It turned out to be a close call, but the operation
stayed on schedule.
They came in the morning of the surgery and gave me a shot in the spine
with needle big enough to service an elephant. Then they wheeled me
down the hallways and stopped briefly so that my parents and grandmother
could visit with me a few seconds. Then it was into the set of surgical
rooms and the procedure itself.
I survived the surgery. Then I spent 5 days in the Intensive Care Unit
loaded up on morphine. Then they took me up to a regular room. The
first day I was on a liquid diet. But the evening of the second they
told me they were putting me back on solid food — and that in fact
they had a surprise for me. They brought in a container and I opened it
over at a table. It was a ceasar salad. My grandmother had wanted me to
have something good to eat after the surgery (unlike today, hospital
food was absolutely terrible back then) and had made arrangements
with the hospital staff to bring the salad in from a restaurant. At that
point I hadn't eaten anything for something like 7 days. Nothing ever
tasted so good as that ceasar salad. To this day when I see a ceasar
salad listed on a menu or see ceasar dressing at the grocery, I think
of my grandmother.
They forced me to walk around a bit. I couldn't stand up straight so I
walked leaning with my hands clenched behind my back for balance. They
called me "Captain Bligh." I had seen the movie. I knew what they were
talking about and I laughed at it too. I did get in some occupational
therapy. And I sort of mingled too. I went to see the kid across the hall
who had the same surgery I had. Of three kids there in Cleveland having
surgery at that time, one, the kid across the hall, had to be opened back
up again due to complications. Another one died. Me, I was the lucky one
of the three.
Finally, it came time to leave. I never really minded hospitals back
then, I thought they were fascinating places. But nevertheless I
couldn't wait to get out of the Clinic. Downstairs we stopped for a
moment to say goodbye to Mrs. King, a very nice widow who we had met
the year before and who had put us up our first two days in Cleveland.
I eventually went on ahead of my parents through the lobby. From the
speakers came a song that was unfamiliar to me but which has been close
to my heart (no pun intended) ever since, "Summer in the City" by the
But at night it's a different world
Go out and find a girl
Come-on come-on and dance all night
Despite the heat it'll be alright
And babe, don't you know it's a pity
That the days can't be like the nights
In the summer, in the city
In the summer, in the city
I pushed through the revolving doors and out into the Cleveland heat
and into a new life.
Cleveland, June 1966.