His Work Beats Inside 15,000 Tiny Hearts
Dr. John Brown is a world-renowned pediatric heart surgeon at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. His is a specialty that is, arguably, more precious than any other. He saves the lives of the most innocent.
The logic in his head was screaming. This is over. Give up.
There, on the operating table, lay a baby girl -- her tiny, strawberry-sized heart not beating.
The odds, the statistics, the reason raged inside Dr. John Brown as he stood in that operating room 30 years ago, hovering over that tiny body.
But something else -- something that no medical school could teach him -- told him not to quit.
So, Dr. Brown stood there with that baby at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health -- where little rays of hope would spark as he squeezed that tiny girl’s heart, only to be dampened by the defeat of nothing.
He stood there squeezing her heart for 30 minutes, then for an hour, then for two hours, then for three hours -- squeezing that baby heart with his own big surgeon hands.
Dr. Brown won’t forget that moment. That moment when he realized logic and reason meant nothing. And that a surgeon’s intuition meant everything.
That little heart started beating.
“I know there have been times in my career when the situation wasn’t looking good, when it appeared from all the numbers that the patient was on a terminal course,” said Dr. Brown, 71. “My own intuition had to rise above logic or reason. I’ve learned not to give up.”
Dr. Brown has not given up, not in 40 years. He is believed to be the most experienced pediatric heart surgeon still practicing in the world.
Since coming to Riley in 1978, Dr. Brown has operated on nearly 15,000 children. He has been the man behind so many firsts in pediatric heart surgery at Riley and beyond. The first pediatric heart transplant, the first newborn heart transplant, the first twin-to twin-transplant.
Dr. Brown’s is a specialty that is, arguably, more precious than any other. He saves the lives of the most innocent.
In the last four decades, parents have cried and hugged him. They have leapt into his arms. They’ve grabbed his hands and kissed those fingers that they knew would be reaching into the tiny chambers of their babies’ hearts, sewing up holes, doing arterial switches.
Those hands that might be squeezing their children’s hearts to make them beat again.
That baby girl that he saved 30 years ago, her family has sent Dr. Brown a Christmas card every year, thanking him for the miracle he gave them, for not giving up.
That hardly seems enough. But, how could you ever really thank the man who saved your baby’s life?
How do you thank the doctor who has saved your son’s life five times? Gina Knauss asks herself that and has no answer.
She was a young, scared mom 32 years ago when she found out her 4-month-old son, who weighed just nine pounds and wasn’t thriving, would need heart surgery. He had truncus arteriosus, a rare defect of the heart.
Knauss remembers the terror as she watched her baby boy be taken away for surgery at Riley. She remembers the anxiety as she waited during the 10-hour surgery. She remembers that she was told her little boy was one of the sickest and weakest babies they had seen. That his chances were not good.
“The look in Dr. Brown’s eyes? My pain was his pain. It truly was,” Knauss said. “There was nothing but empathy and sweetness and kindness in Dr. Brown’s face.”
Knauss has looked into that face plenty of times since. Four more times, Dr. Brown has performed complicated surgeries on her son.
“Before one surgery, I grabbed his hand in mine and I kissed the top of his hand,” Knauss said. “I said, ‘You do know these hands are what is going to bring my son back to me?’”
Dr. Brown smiled. He told her he would take excellent care of her son. And he has. Just last month, her son had his fifth surgery with Dr. Brown, a double valve replacement. Many said he wouldn’t live to see his teens, but Knauss’ son is now 32.
“Dr. Brown is just a magical man,” Knauss said. “He is revered by everyone. But he is more humble than any man you will ever meet.”
Perhaps the modesty comes from the farm boy in him. Dr. Brown was raised in Gosport, Ind., on a grain and livestock farm. His family had corn and soybeans, pigs, chickens and cows.
Most days before school, Dr. Brown would milk the cows. After school, he toiled on the farm fields. Even as he was in medical school working a second shift at Bloomington Hospital as an orderly, he helped his dad farm.
That work, Dr. Brown said, was good training for his career as a surgeon.
“You learned to just stay there until the work was done,” he said. “No matter what, you stay until it’s done.”
And that is one of the promises Dr. Brown -- a married father of three and grandfather to six -- makes to his patients, to their families.
“What I usually tell them is, ‘I can’t promise you the outcome that we both want, but I promise you I’ll treat your baby as if it’s my own grandchild,’” Dr. Brown said. “I won’t leave until I’ve tried everything, until I’ve gotten things as good as I can possibly get them.”
Putting families at ease is a big part of Dr. Brown’s job. He has found honesty and openness is key.
“They realize that none of us are God,” he said. “We can’t promise anything. We can do everything possible.”
What Dr. Brown has done and is still doing is remarkable. There are 45 different heart procedures that can be performed on children.
Dr. Brown does all of those, and they add up to about 230 surgeries a year. Throughout his career, he has done 250 heart transplants, including the world’s only neonatal twin-to-twin transplant. It’s a surgery that happened 27 years ago and one he remembers well.
The twins were born, one boy and one girl, each weighed just over four pounds. The baby boy was brain dead and the girl was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS). Dr. Brown removed that little heart from the boy and put it in his sister.
“I’ll never forget my amazement and wonder. Even though I knew from my experience with older patients that this heart transplant should work, it was almost impossible to believe that it would,” Dr. Brown said. “Seeing that newly-transplanted tiny heart beat vigorously in the donor’s sister was awesomely powerful.”
As Dr. Brown told that story inside Riley last week, he spoke of other medical marvels he has been involved with. They are too numerous to count. Just that day, he had performed a complicated open-heart surgery on a 2-week-old, 5-pound baby girl. Without that surgery, she would have died.
“He is something else, something special,” said Richard Schreiner, M.D., who for 22 years served as Physician-In-Chief and Chairperson for the Department of Pediatrics at Riley. “There is no one in the world still practicing who has operated on more babies than Dr. Brown.”
Dr. Schreiner said the genius and the skill are just part of what makes Dr. Brown the best.
“Dr. Brown has a way about him,” he said. “A way of making mothers, parents feel comfortable and sure that their babies were in the best hands possible.”
With nearly 40 years behind him, Dr. Brown is now operating on second generations. He has parents he operated on as children bringing their babies to him.
And that’s what he’s most proud of, Dr. Brown said, all the one-on-one care he’s been able to give patients over the years.
He’s also proud of the training. He’s trained 95 heart surgeons, who are now scattered throughout the United States and in 12 other countries. In a way, he feels like he has a small part in the surgeries they perform each day on their patients.
He’s proud to watch young surgeons set out on the same career path that he did. Because, Dr. Brown said, it’s been just wonderful.
“I am wonderstruck at the impact this career has had on my life, and I wouldn’t choose any other path, had I the opportunity to do it all over again,” he said. “I believe that my career could be summed up with this phrase: It’s a wonderful life.”