Letters, emails and website comments | Feb. 17

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Vintage newspaper clipping showing the first open-heart surgery patient in Long Beach, in 1957

Photos courtesy St. Mary Medical Center

A heartfelt message
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first open-heart surgery in the city of Long Beach, conducted at St. Mary Medical Center with the use of a heart-lung machine back in 1957.

The heart-lung machine is a system which takes over the function of the heart and the lungs to provide oxygenated blood to the body while the heart is stopped or opened to allow surgery.

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Michael Rivard present day

The first open-heart surgery patient at St. Mary Medical Center was a 12-year-old boy. He suffered from a congenital heart defect, which caused chest pain and shortness of breath and, over time, resulted in an enlarged heart. With the knowledge that someday her son would need open-heart surgery, his mother worked diligently with the then St. Mary Heart Guild to raise money for the purchase of the special equipment needed.

Back in those days, St. Mary doctors had to place the little boy in an icy solution to lower his body temperature to a hypothermic state in order to cut off the blood flow to perform the open heart surgery. Although he was in the operating room for six hours, surgeons only had five minutes of precious time to perform the procedure.

The surgeon, Dr. Byron, was accompanied by St. Mary resident physicians Dr. Ungar and Dr. Buell. Certain discoveries were made once the little boy’s heart was open that led to a subsequent surgery at St. Mary a year later.

Today, in the United States, approximately 22,000 pediatric open-heart procedures are performed each year. Thanks to medical advances, the cardiac intervention this little boy needed can miraculously be done in-utero now.

Doctors told that little boy’s parents he had a one-in-four chance of surviving the invasive surgeries and, if he did survive, he’d have an inactive future and be lucky to see his early 20s. After surgery, his dad bought him a tennis racket in hopes that someday he could play like other children his age.

Thanks to the wonderful people at St. Mary, I’m here today, on Valentine’s Day, to celebrate my 72nd birthday with all of you and share my story of hope and gratitude as that little boy was me.


Michael Rivard
Long Beach

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