Donation to fund heart institute

Craig Gustafson

The University Medical School will receive one of the largest individual donations in its history today for a new institute named after a man who many call the father of open-heart surgery.
Kaye Lillehei, widow of the late C. Walton Lillehei, set up a $12 million trust to build the Lillehei Heart Institute in her husband’s name.
Dr. Lillehei built a reputation as a pioneer in heart surgery at the University and worldwide, while performing, teaching and inventing surgical techniques.
The institute will bring together faculty members specializing in cardiovascular surgery and adult and pediatric cardiology. The aim is to continue making heart-surgery advances similar to those Lillehei made over the past 50 years.
The University legend died last summer, succumbing to cancer at age 80. Two weeks before Lillehei passed away last July, he met with University officials and discussed his desire to build a heart institute.
Blaine Thrasher, director of development for the Department of Surgery, said the project had been Lillehei and his colleagues’ vision for years.
“Walt was the ultimate researcher,” Thrasher said. “That’s why this institute really does him an honor.”
Once established, the institute will foster an interdisciplinary approach to heart surgery, allowing researchers to translate their discoveries into clinical treatments. In other words, it will establish a more direct link between research and heart patients.
Another high priority will be attracting “the best and brightest” residents and fellows in cardiovascular surgery from around the world.
University surgeon Leslie Miller said nearly two-thirds of Minnesota’s heart surgeons have been educated at the University.
“If (the University) doesn’t succeed,” he said, “the quality of cardiovascular care will be compromised in the long term.”
The $12 million gift acts as seed money to get the project started. A total of $25 million is needed.
It is anticipated that the Medical School, the Academic Health Center, the Legislature and medical-technology companies will be involved in the recruitment of other sources of revenue and support.
The institute will be housed within the Variety Club Research Center on East River Road on the University’s East Bank campus.
The man behind the heart
Lillehei earned his medical degree, a master’s in physiology and a doctorate in surgery from the University.
In 1951, he was named professor in the Department of Surgery. He left the University in 1967 to take a position at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, only to return eight years later to become a University surgery professor.
Among his many accomplishments, Lillehei performed the world’s first open-heart surgery at the University in 1952. The pioneer also excelled in educating future surgeons.
Peter Gove, spokesman for St. Jude Medical Center in Little Canada, said Lillehei trained more than 1,000 cardiac surgeons during his career, including Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967.
Lillehei’s reputation for heart surgery is paralleled by his reputation as an inventor. He collaborated with colleagues on the first battery-powered heart pacemaker. The invention stimulated the creation of local companies St. Jude Medical and Medtronic.
Kaye said her husband’s greatest accomplishment was being able to work on a living heart. Therefore, a large portion of the trust fund will go toward founding the institute. The University’s nursing department will receive $2 million of the donation.
“We talked about (creating the trust fund) for quite a while,” Kaye said. “He instigated the process and thought it was important, but left the final decision up to me.”
The reason for the donation is simple, she said.
“We’re all sort of homegrown,” she said. Besides her husband’s pioneering efforts, Kaye, the couple’s three children and several grandchildren also attended the University.

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3233.