On February 14, the Innovation Acceleration Program will celebrate Children’s Hospital Boston’s rich history of innovation at the hospital’s first Innovation Day. Of all the groundbreaking discoveries and procedures that have taken place within Children’s walls, few have had the impact of the surgery performed by Robert Gross, MD, one summer’s day in 1938.
“If you look at the history of cardiac surgery,” says Children’s Associate Anesthesiologist-in-Chief Mark Rockoff, MD, who also chairs the hospital’s Archives Program, “it essentially all started with Dr. Gross.”
Gross’s patient, 7-year-old Lorraine Sweeney, from Brighton, Mass., came to him with a diagnosis of patent ductus arteriosus, a congenital heart defect consisting of a persistent abnormal opening between the pulmonary artery and the aorta. In 1938, it was generally a death sentence—one that would likely end with Sweeney dying of congestive heart failure before adulthood. Accepted practice dictated that surgery was not a survivable option. Gross, the chief surgical resident at Children’s at the time, disagreed.
After two years of successful animal experiments, Gross was certain that the defect could be corrected in a human being “without undue danger.” He lobbied for the opportunity to test his theory, despite skepticism from his peers, and direct opposition from William Ladd, MD, Children’s surgeon-in-chief, and Gross’s superior.
Undaunted, Gross waited until Ladd boarded a ship bound for Europe. Then, with the blessing of Sweeney’s mother, he put his career on the line and performed a revolutionary surgery—tying off Sweeney’s patent ductus arteriosus, allowing normal flow of blood through her heart. “Dr. Gross told me that if I had died, he would never have worked again,” Sweeney recalls. “He would have ended up back on his family’s chicken farm.” …