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King of Hearts: The True Story of the Maverick Who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery [Paperback]

by G. Wayne Miller
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 1, 2000 0609807242 978-0609807248 1
Few of the great stories of medicine are as palpably dramatic as the invention of open-heart surgery, yet, until now, no journalist has ever brought all of the thrilling specifics of this triumph to life.

This is the story of the surgeon many call the father of open-heart surgery, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, who, along with colleagues at University Hospital in Minneapolis and a small band of pioneers elsewhere, accomplished what many experts considered to be an impossible feat: He opened the heart, repaired fatal defects, and made the miraculous routine.

Acclaimed author G. Wayne Miller draws on archival research and exclusive interviews with Lillehei and legendary pioneers such as Michael DeBakey and Christiaan Barnard, taking readers into the lives of these doctors and their patients as they progress toward their landmark achievement. In the tradition of works by Richard Rhodes and Tracy Kidder, King of Hearts tells the story of an important and gripping piece of forgotten science history.

From the Hardcover edition.

Frequently Bought Together

King of Hearts: The True Story of the Maverick Who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery + 100,000 Hearts: A Surgeon's Memoir + Open Heart: The Radical Surgeons who Revolutionized Medicine
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Editorial Reviews Review

The surgeon-as-rock-star mystique seems like it must have come straight out of Hollywood, but the myth had to begin more concretely. A good candidate is Minnesota's Dr. Walt Lillehei, the hard-working, hard-playing father of open-heart surgery, whose life is told in garish color in King of Hearts by journalist G. Wayne Miller. From his early brilliance, recovery from deadly lymphatic cancer, and dramatic repair of seemingly hopeless heart cases to the disintegration of his career at its peak thanks to an army of personal enemies and conviction on tax evasion counts, his story is consistently surprising and engaging. Fast cars, hard drinking, and plenty of women filled his time when he wasn't turning lives around with a few strokes of his scalpel, and the reader will find the surgeon's actions almost unbelievable--rarely endearing, but occasionally saintly. Combining this melodramatic biography with the fascinating story of the struggle for open-heart surgery, considered impossible little more than a generation ago, Miller makes a compelling case that the daring scientist was simply another side of the arrogant, absent-minded playboy. No ordinary biography, King of Hearts is breathless reading--you'll find yourself surfacing every few chapters to remind yourself its nonfiction. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Open-heart surgery is now almost routine in the United States, but just a few decades ago the idea of repairing cardiac defects by cutting into a living human heart was almost unthinkable. Yet thanks to the efforts of a talented few who refused to believe it couldn't be done, open-heart surgery became a reality in the 1950s. Chief among its pioneers was the intense and flamboyant Minnesota surgeon Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, whose story Miller tells here in thriller style. Miller, a staff writer for the Providence Journal, re-creates the anxieties and excitement of an era poised on the brink of astonishing technological advances but stymied by a disease that killed more than 625,000 Americans annually. Lillehei was convinced that open-heart surgery was the answer--but how to divert blood from the heart and still keep the patient alive? Lillehei's first attempts, in 1954, used a complex and risky donor-patient blood exchange. Several of his first patients died; behind his back, nurses began calling him "murderer." By 1955, however, Lillehei and his colleague Richard DeWall perfected a simplified heart-lung machine made with beer hose and plastic tubing ("a high school science fair project was more complex," Miller observes) that finally allowed Lillehei to achieve his dream of "bringing advanced open-heart surgery to the masses." Lillehei's innovations revolutionized cardiac surgery; many believed he would win a Nobel prize. Instead, the surgeon was disgraced when he was found guilty of tax fraud in 1973. Miller's fast-paced and scrupulously researched account reveals both the exhilaration and the tragedy of Lillehei's story. Agent, Kay McCaulay, Pimlico Agency. (Feb.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 302 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; 1 edition (February 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609807242
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609807248
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #283,045 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

G. Wayne Miller is a staff writer at The Providence Journal, a documentary filmmaker, and the author of three novels, three short story collections and eight books of non-fiction, including TOY WARS: The Epic Battle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie and the Companies That Make Them; KING OF HEARTS: The True Story of the Maverick Who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery; and TOP BRAIN, BOTTOM BRAIN: Surprising Insights Into How You Think, co-authored with neuroscientist Stephen M. Kosslyn. He has been honored for his writing more than 40 times and was a member of the Providence Journal team that was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service. Three documentaries he wrote and co-produced have been broadcast on PBS: ON THE LAKE: Life and Love in a Distant Place, about America's tuberculosis epidemic of the early 1900s and globally today; BEHIND THE HEDGEROW: Eileen Slocum and the Meaning of Newport Society; and The Providence Journal's COMING HOME, about veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nominated in 2012 for a New England Emmy and winner of a regional Edward R. Murrow Award. Miller is a Visiting Fellow at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., where he is director of the Pell Center's Story in the Public Square initiative, Visit Miller at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Very Moving Book December 8, 2002
As I read this book, I was profoundly moved. I was was born with a ASD & pulmonary valve defect. Dr Richard Varco and Lellehei did my surgery At the Variety Club Heart hospital in 1955 . I was one of the 1st one hundred surgeries done at the U of Minn.What incredable dedication , hard work, these men had. In my early twenties, I again needed heart surgery. This time again a very brillent, dedicated surgeon by the name of U Scott Page did a total correction.I have been able to live a wonderful. active life thanks the The King of Heart and team and Dr Page. I owe my life to the many, many dogs used to perfect progress of open heart surgery. I am a nurse, I have cared for many open heart patients. Thank you Dr Varco, Dr Lillehei and Dr S Page
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must Read! An incredible non-fiction page turner! March 14, 2000
Dr. Walter Lillehei's last name is atually easy to pronounce. When reading G. Wayne Miller's newest non-fiction thriller, "The King of Hearts," just read his name as 'Lilla - High.' Almost like the name of a high school . . . Lilla High.
But Miller's quest for the truth about 'Lilla High" turns into a reader's quest for the true story about the almost unbelievable account of how heart surgery began on this planet. Most of us remember or have heard about the Dr. Christiaan Barnards's headlining heart transplant in 1967. Maybe the recipient's name - Louis Washkansky- would be a good trivia question on 'Who Want's to be a Millionaire?' or 'Jeopardy.' But it might be better to learn about or remember the name of this maveric medical pioneer by the name of Dr. Walt Lillehei (prounounced like the high school!) who began the heart surgery revolution.
This book is a suspensiful portrait of a fascinating man and his incredible determination, at any cost, to forge ahead where no doctor had before. We take for granted that our relative, friend, neighbor, even ourselves! can now go through a simple open heart surgery procedure and recover gracefully to enjoy a long life. But do you remember history just 30 or 40 years ago when heart disease at any age meant almost instant death? Do you know how many children just died from what we know demand from doctors to routinely fix?
G.Wayne Miller answered so many questions for us through an amazing eight year project which is now titled "King of Hearts." Miller's project has become this 245 pages of reading that one WANTS to read all at once.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Captivating! March 16, 2000
I received a review copy of King of Hearts a few days after my son's last operation for Congenital Heart Defects, and I have to admit, the LAST thing I wanted to read about was open heart surgery! Much to my surprise, I was quickly engaged in this masterfully told story about Dr. Walt Lillehei. I was also struck by the bravery of parents who, by allowing new procedures to be tried on their children, laid the groundwork for the medical advances that keep our loved ones affected by Congenital Heart Defects alive today.
Highly recommended reading for parents, adult patients, medical professionals, and others interested in medical history!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening, inspiring August 11, 2000
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Mr. Miller's style of suspense keeps us reading to see what happens next. He vividly portrays the progress of open heart surgery, step by painful and bloody step. The reader suffers with the parents and doctors with each failed operation on each child, but watching as each technical problem is solved makes everything ok in the end.
The reader learns about various congenital heart diseases of children, the symptoms, the physical descriptions, and the outcomes. Mr. Miller explains the procedures very well so no prior knowledge of surgery, medicine, or heart physiology is required.
My favorite part is the race with the Mayo Clinic to perfect the heart-lung machine. The Mayo Clinic not only loses, but loses almost comically. Another favorite part is how the pace-maker was invented. This story along with the heart-lung machine story make this book worth reading.
If you are interested in medicine, surgery, heart problems, medical history, medical technology, or just want to learn, then you will appreciate "King of Hearts."
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Better than Best March 25, 2004
A Kid's Review
When I read the first paragraph of this book, I was engrossed! I started to read it for a report. It gave plenty of information, and was extremely interesting. You feel like you are in the operating room. I affects your emotion. I highly recommend this book!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Heart of a Writer March 18, 2000
"King of Hearts" is an engaging adventure into the world of heart repair 50 years ago. Mr. Miller tells the story of Walt Lilihei, one of the pioneers of open-heart surgery, with spirit, accuracy and compassion. He is ever sensitive to both the goals that Dr. Lilihei had and the lives that were lost in the process. Instead of viewing these lives as just statistics, we see how they were people, loved and valued by their families, who had no alternative but to try surgery. Their deaths are respected and honored, as they went before the world knew what it knows now about open-heart surgery. But they were instrumental, as was Dr. Lilihei in teaching the world what it knows now about repairing the heart.
Although some stay away from biographies, "King of Hearts" stands alone. It is a fast-paced, exciting exploration of one man's search to radically alter the surgical options for heart disease. Once one picks up this book, it is difficult to put down. I confess to reading it straight through the moment I received it. The reader wants so very much for Dr. Lilihei to triumph, to find a way to save his patients. And Mr. Miller's style of writing is enough to keep any reader engaged. He writes with energy and with a no-nonsense portrayal of this great man. He skillfully avoids the overtly technical and instead writes for the layman reader, though I have no doubt that those in the medical field will also enjoy reading the story behind the facts they learned about Walt Lilihei.
I am reminded of Grisham and Turow in the reading of this text, yet Miller stands quite by himself as well, marking out an aggressive and fast-paced style of writing which tells both the facts and the emotions but never dips into pathos or excessive sentimentality.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars ahead of their time, thank goodness!
Our family was involved in hoping that open heart surgery would find the 'cure' for congenital heart disease. CHD
Has come a long way and just in the nick of time for us! Read more
Published 2 months ago by Michele
5.0 out of 5 stars Great story.
It is a story that my wife was involved in. She worked at the hospital where the research and surgery was done. She loved it.
Published 5 months ago by Marshall Condra
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting and true story of how open heart surgery was...
Excellent! If you are interested in learning about the history that lead to the development of open heart surgery, this book is for you.
Published 6 months ago by Sergina M Flaherty
5.0 out of 5 stars brilliance comes with a price
Amazing story of passion and brilliance and of a man and woman who didn't give up. Many lives are better because of his tenacity and his life was better because his wife was... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Kathleen I Wolf
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful
This book is AMAZING. I work in healthcare and am intrigued to begin with, but having a child with a Heart Defect made this book even more amazing. Very good read.
Published 8 months ago by mandy Schultz
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read!
I really enjoyed this book, it was very close to my heart as it was about my Grandpa. Very Interesting!
Published 11 months ago by kellie
4.0 out of 5 stars surgery
As a nurse who has worked in the operating room for more than 40 years, 35 of them here in MN, it was interesting to hear some of the "inside" information regarding the... Read more
Published 11 months ago by geo
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Truly inspiring.Having suffered heart issues myself the book was amazing.Even gave it as a gift to my cardiologist .A must read.
Published 12 months ago by Paul Reardon
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Read
This book was recommended by my daughter's pediatric cardiologist and it was excellent. Miller put you right there in the midst of trial and error cardiac surgery in the 50s. Read more
Published 13 months ago by A
5.0 out of 5 stars My doctor many years ago
Amazing read; The great doctor was my doctor as a baby. I have just had open heart surgery and must say, he told me many years ago this would happen. Great, Great man and family
Published 13 months ago by anthony millington
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