The Heart Club: A history of London’s heart surgery pioneers
Surgery on the heart was explicitly ruled out by the medical teaching of the 1940s.
A team of London doctors and scientists led by Russell Brock were determined to challenge and reverse that dogma. Together, they would help to change the history of heart surgery and the chances of survival for future patients. Brock, who had cared for the injured in London throughout the war, was poised to operate on the heart. The outstanding American surgeon Dwight Harken had trained under Brock at the Brompton. They later spent time together at a US army hospital, set in a cluster of huts in the English countryside in anticipation of the 1944 D-day landings. Brock watched Harken remove bullets and shrapnel from soldiers’ hearts and heard him speak at a 1945 meeting of British surgeons. Harken told them about operations on 134 soldiers, all of whom had survived. Coincidentally, wartime comrades in the allied forces medical services had built a bond between Guy’s and Johns Hopkins Hospital, funded by the Clothworkers’ Livery Company. This brought the surgeon Alfred Blalock to Guy’s in 1947 to perform and teach a new operation for children with fatal congenital heart disease. These were familiar at the time as ‘blue babies’ and the operations began to save their lives. With this tangible evidence from Harken and Blalock, Brock’s group — they called themselves a ‘club’ — set out to advance heart surgery.
Their work was meticulously chronicled in a rediscovered volume of minutes which form The Heart Club by cardiothoracic surgeon Tom Treasure. Many of the doctors who were members of the club were his teachers and mentors. To complete the story, three survivors, whose lives were saved by early heart operations, tell their life stories from being blue babies of the 1940s to the present.
The Heart Club is a remarkable account of the magic of medicine and the tenacity of surgical pioneers.
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