Man with a Mission

70 years ago, Dr. Dwight E. Harken created the first known support group for heart surgery survivors — and it’s still going strong today.

By Tamekia Reece

In January 1951, four people gathered in the lounge of a Boston hospital. Doris Silliman, Keith Otto, Alphonse Santomassimo and Elizabeth Wilkinson all had recently undergone heart procedures — a new and risky operation at the time.

Dwight E. Harken, M.D., the doctor who performed each of their surgeries, had set up the meeting, thinking it would be good for them to provide support for one another.

The patients talked about their heart conditions, gave each other advice and shared both laughter and tears. They each talked about how good they felt since their respective surgeries and shared their hopes and plans for the future. The meeting was such a success that they decided to do it regularly. The quartet even gave their group a fitting name: the Mended Hearts.

Little did Dr. Harken or the members know that their group would become the world’s largest peer-to-peer support network for heart patients. Although Dr. Dwight Harken, the founding father of Mended Hearts®, passed away on August 27, 1993, his legacy lives on.

The Birth of a Pioneer

Born June 5, 1910, in Osceola, Iowa, Dr. Dwight Harken had a lifelong love for medicine. “He was an incredibly gifted, phenomenally energetic and imaginative man who found his mission in cardiac surgery and spent all of his waking hours practicing surgery, yet he always said he never worked a day in his life because he loved what he did,” says Dr. Alden Harken, Dr. Dwight Harken’s son. Dr. Dwight Harken spent so much time at the hospital that it almost became a regular weekend hangout for Alden and his sister. “I learned to ride a bicycle in the parking lot of the hospital,” he recalls. Seeing his father work so hard and gain so much satisfaction from saving lives was inspiring to the younger Harken. He also became a cardiothoracic surgeon and recently retired from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine.

Dr. Dwight Harken’s interest in health also likely came from his own father. After graduating from high school, Dr. Dwight Harken’s dad sold encyclopedias and read them at night. He decided he didn’t want to be an encyclopedia salesman and thought he’d like to be a doctor instead. “He went up to Des Moines, took the Iowa State Medical Exam and passed it. [My grandfather] never went to college, never went to medical school — and he practiced medicine for 55 years,” says Dr. Alden Harken.

Much like his dad, Dr. Dwight Harken also made bold moves. Graduating in the top 10% of his high school class, he could attend any college he desired. He chose Harvard University and graduated from Harvard Medical School. After completing an internship in thoracic surgery at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, he won a New York Academy of Medicine fellowship and went to London. When World War II started, he joined the United States Army Medical Corps. While there, he did something that would change the future and lives of millions of people to come forever.

A First in Heart Care

Back in those days, the heart was considered to be so delicate that only a handful of surgeons dared to perform heart surgery — and when they did, most of the patients died. That was unfortunate for soldiers fighting in World War II, many of whom returned with bullets and shrapnel in or near their hearts.

Dr. Dwight Harken believed something could be done. He began operating on animals, looking for a way to remove foreign bodies from a still-beating heart. Before long, he found a procedure that worked and was ready to try it with humans.

In the 10 months following D-Day in 1944, the 34-year-old surgeon performed more than 130 operations on wounded soldiers, removing bullets and shrapnel from their hearts. All the soldiers survived, and Dr. Dwight Harken became the first surgeon in the world to have repeated success operating on the heart. His pioneering work led many to consider him the father of heart surgery.

A Brilliant Idea

After the war, Dr. Dwight Harken returned to the states, eventually ending up at Harvard’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. He set his sights on correcting mitral valve stenosis, a condition in which the heart’s mitral valve doesn’t fully open and blood flow is blocked. Coincidentally, within days of each other in 1948, he and Charles P. Bailey, M.D., of Philadelphia discovered surgical techniques to treat mitral valve stenosis. Once again, Dr. Dwight Harken was helping extend and improve people’s quality of life.

His son remembers seeing the results of some of the surgeries: “A week after the operation, he would take the patient and walk her over to a flight of stairs and say, ‘Now walk up the stairs,’” recalls Dr. Alden Harken. After being almost bedridden because of the mitral stenosis, the patient didn’t think she could climb stairs. But Dr. Harken was there to provide reassurance.

“Then the patient would walk up the stairs and burst into tears at the top because she had no idea the surgery could make that kind of difference,” says Dr. Alden Harken.

The patients were so elated that they shared the news and talked about their feelings with other patients. Dr. Dwight Harken overheard and realized those conversations helped both the patient who had just had surgery and ones who had upcoming surgeries. That’s why he asked four patients to meet to provide support for one another — laying the foundation for The Mended Hearts, Inc.

Growing and Thriving

What started as a small group of people rapidly grew. Initially, all members of Mended Hearts were Dr. Dwight Harken’s patients. He recognized the benefits the group could bring to other patients, not just his own, so he suggested Mended Hearts allow any surgical heart patient to become a member — regardless of location or the doctor who performed the surgery. Word spread by way of members talking to other patients and families, and Dr. Dwight Harken talked to other surgeons about the value of having Mended Hearts participate in their surgical program.

He also played a vital role in advancing Mended Hearts and helping members form the organization, write up a charter and plan their membership contacts. He even provided stamps and stationery to get the group started.

His commitment didn’t end there. “He was very involved, even after he retired, and he stayed involved until his death,” says Al Voss, corporate secretary of The Mended Hearts, Inc. and assistant regional director of the Southern Region. Throughout the years, Dr. Harken participated in many of the meetings; he led the first seminar on visiting in 1973, advocated for heart patients regarding insurance policies and remained in constant contact with the Mended Hearts.

“We still have letters he wrote to the members,” Voss says.

“My dad recognized when members talked to patients and families before and after the operation, the understanding of the patients was so much better, and they actually did better,” says Dr. Alden Harken.

Mended Hearts members gained benefits, too: “The ultimate advantage was the pure joy patients who had an operation got from helping somebody else, which is why Mended Hearts’ motto is, ‘It’s great to be alive … and to help others,’” Dr. Alden Harken says.

The Beat Goes On

Beyond his surgeries and MHI, Dr. Dwight Harken did many other things that contributed to patient care. In 1951 — the same year MHI started — he created the first intensive care unit (ICU).

“At that time, if you had a heart operation, you went back to the hospital bed and the staff would check to see how you’re doing the next morning,” says Dr. Alden Harken. He says his dad found that unacceptable.

“He said, ‘We can impact patients’ care, not just 24 hours later, we can do it hour to hour and minute to minute. And if we do that, patients will do better,’” says Dr. Alden Harken. And so the first ICU was born.

The fact that Dr. Harken and his team created ICUs resulted in many people’s lives being saved and extended — not just heart patients, but patients in other areas too, Voss says.

Dr. Harken also developed and inserted the first artificial cardiac valve, implanted the first “demand” pacemaker and developed the first direct current defibrillator.

Dr. Dwight Harken held many titles throughout his career. For most of it, he was a clinical professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. He also was a past president of the American College of Cardiology and the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation. And he was on the editorial board of several medical journals.

Dr. Dwight Harken truly improved the forecast for heart patients: “He paved the way for future doctors to learn and innovate, to change the procedures for future heart patients,” says Voss.

Although Dr. Dwight Harken is no longer here, his dedication to heart patients lives on. “Mended Hearts and Mended Little Hearts have multiple programs with objectives and goals to support people and therefore continue Dr. Harken’s legacy,” Voss says.

If Dr. Dwight Harken could see what has become of the group he started so long ago — four people then, now up to 72,000 members — his son says he would be exhilarated.

“He would be the most delighted person in the world because he knows the good Mended Hearts does,” says Dr. Alden Harken. “For him, knowing that its exponential growth is contributing so much to so many people would be gratifying beyond belief.”