Memorial service honors University surgeon Lillehei

by Megan Boldt

Filling the auditorium Dr. C. Walton Lillehei once lectured in, about 200 people gathered to honor and remember the renowned surgeon and faculty member.
A memorial service held Thursday at the University Medical School’s Mayo Memorial Auditorium gave those who knew Lillehei a chance to celebrate his life and career.
The service included speeches from colleagues and students who were close to Lillehei.
During the welcome, Dr. Jerry Rosenberg, president of the Lillehei Surgical Society, shared a memory from his intern days 45 years ago.
“After a long, hard day in surgery, Dr. Lillehei still made rounds and talked to the interns and residents,” Rosenberg said.
Dr. Vincent Gott, professor of cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institution spoke about how Lillehei was admired by colleagues.
“Doctors from across the U.S. and the world would come to watch Dr. Lillehei perform his operations,” he recalled.
Lillehei was admired not only by colleagues, but also by his students and interns.
“Walt treated us like colleagues, not like apprentices,” Gott said.
Lillehei’s son, Craig Lillehei, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, spoke of his memories and lessons he learned from his father.
When Craig Lillehei was young, he asked his father what he did when something went wrong in the operating room.
“If you panic, things will always get worse,” his father would say.
Lillehei’s career was nothing short of distinguished. In 1941, Lillehei graduated from the University’s Medical School. He later received a master’s degree in physiology and a doctorate in surgery. Lillehei was named a professor in the Department of Surgery in 1951.
After leaving the University to be the surgery department chairman at Cornell Medical Center-New York Hospital in 1967, he returned to Minnesota in 1975. Lillehei then became a professor of surgery at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and Variety Club Heart Hospital.
He is also past president of the American College of Cardiology and has received numerous awards worldwide.
After Lillehei’s death, Terry Shepherd, president and CEO of St. Jude Medical Inc., commented on the impact Lillehei had and will have on future generations.
“Thousands of people around the world, today, tomorrow or next week will have some type of open heart procedure,” said Shepherd after Lillehei’s death in July. “They and their families probably do not know Dr. Lillehei’s name. But their surgeon, the procedure he or she uses and the medical device itself, all bear the indelible stamp of Dr. C. Walton Lillehei.”