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Dr. Ray Heimbecker a hero and pioneer in the Cardio Field

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Dr. Ray Heimbecker's career in cardiac surgery began in 1949 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where the famous Alfred Blalock had asked him to review the status of heart-lung machines.

"Johns Hopkins was where cardiac surgery was born," explained Dr. Heimbecker, "but we weren't very far behind here in Canada. Blalock proved that the heart was safe to operate on. Before that, several so-called experts said the heart was the one organ that could never be touched by the surgeon."

Heimbecker and Blalock agreed that what some called "an instrument of the devil" could be fine-tuned and revolutionize the surgical world.

Heimbecker returned to the U of T, where he spent the next few months reorganizing his lab in the basement of the Banting Institute so he could work on a heart-lung machine that could keep adult patients alive while doctors operated on the heart. It is important to distinguish between adults and infants when talking about cardiac surgery, explained Dr. Heimbecker, because children had lower blood flow rates and thus required a less complex machine.

No medical instrument companies were interested in his attempts to perfect the heart-lung machine because they saw no future in cardiac surgery. Neither did some of his colleagues.

"They told me 'Ray you're going to starve to death - heart surgery will never amount to anything.'"

"In those days, it really was a mighty effort."

Much of the construction was completed in his home workshop and his perseverance and ingenuity eventually led to the first adult open heart surgery in Canada on January 12, 1958. Heimbecker, along with Drs. Wilfred Bigelow, James Key and Don Wilson surgically repaired a large atrial septal defect in a 25 year-old woman from northern Ontario. It took 20 units of fresh blood and his machine ran perfectly for 25 minutes while they completed the operation.

A new day had dawned - open heart surgery was a reality in Canada. The apparatus is still on display in the Toronto General Hospital museum.

"It looks quite primitive by today's standards, but it saved quite a few lives," he said.

Reading the newspaper article about Barbara Bush's surgery brought back a lot of memories for Dr. Heimbecker, but his career in cardiac surgery didn't end with his work on valve transplants.


In 1974 Heimbecker became the first Professor and Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery in the new University Hospital in London, Ontario.

"When I resigned from U of T and went to the new hospital at the University of Western Ontario, they told me London was a small town and there wasn't huge supply of banked blood, and the transplant unit had priority."

"In the first two or three years we drove the blood banks crazy because we required eight pints of day-old blood - it couldn't be older than 24 hours because we needed the clotting properties of fresh blood," he said. "If you requested that today, they'd just laugh. Today they have refined the process so they only require one pint of blood."

But the need for fresh blood, and the shortage of the precious commodity, led Dr. Heimbecker to pioneer another invention that allowed surgeons to recycle a patient's blood.

"If I wanted to continue with my research, I had to get working on coming up with a solution to the blood problem."

His solution was to develop a device that could recover shed blood during cardiovascular surgery and after filtration, return the blood to the patient.

His research showed that almost unlimited amounts of blood could be salvaged from an incision and then simply and safely returned to the patient. This measure has also saved lives in circumstances, like trauma, in which nothing else could have been done.

The equipment required to recycle blood was neither costly nor sophisticated. It consisted of a disposable reservoir and filter ($75) and a reusable electric blood pump ($2,000 new, but often found in dusty hospital cupboards).

He followed that up with continued transplant research and experiments with what he called "the black magic" of transplant medicine: Cyclosporin A.

Funding their own research, Heimbecker, Dr. Neil McKenzie and Dr. Stiller proved that Cyclosporin A was indeed a wonder drug that produced selective immunosuppression of implanted foreign tissue. In other words, it prevented the rejection of transplanted organs.

In 1981, they performed the first modern heart transplant in Canada at the University of Western Ontario Hospital, leading it to become widely known around the world as a major organ transplant centre. In 1997, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada for being "at the forefront of his specialty, developing advanced techniques for heart surgery and assisting in the first human heart valve transplant".

In addition to his research, Heimbecker was well-known in the out islands of the Bahamas, where he loved to sail.

"They called me the kitchen table doctor because I would visit the people and conduct surgery on the kitchen table," he said.

Through it all, Dr. Heimbecker and his family would retreat to his cattle farm on the outskirts of Collingwood, where he would indulge in his other passions: skiing, sailing, fishing and painting.

"We all came up to Collingwood for holidays. We had the farm for 40 years - (he still has a framed copy of the first deed issued by the Province of Canada). Heimbecker sold his farm a few years ago and moved into town. The farm is now home to the Oslerbrook Golf and Country Club.

"It was a wonderful place for us to go and for my five children to grow up - it gave us all a sense of balance after living in the big city."


We here at Heartboard salute you for all that you have done to help advance the field of Cardiology. And in a roundabout way for the surgery that took place in the last week on First Lady Barbara Bush to not only be successful but even possible. Thanks to your dedication and innovation :common076[1]:

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