75 years ago Boston Children’s Hospital’s Robert Gross, MD, made medical history when he performed the first surgery to correct a congenital heart defect.
His patient was 7-year-old Lorraine Sweeney, from Brighton, Mass., who had been diagnosed with 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—but where others saw the impossible Gross, the chief surgical resident at Boston Children’s at the time, saw opportunity.
“If you look at the history of cardiac surgery,” says Boston Children’s Associate Anesthesiologist-in-Chief Mark Rockoff, MD, who also chairs the hospital’s Archives Program, “it essentially all started with Dr. Gross.”
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, Boston Children’s surgeon-in-chief at the time, and Gross’s superior.
Undaunted, Gross waited until Ladd boarded a ship bound for a 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.” …