If one were to rank advances of the human race in the last century, open-heart surgery might not be the first one would think of but it'd still need to be right at the top. The first open-heart surgery in the United States took place on May 6, 1953, as Dr. John H. Gibbon Jr. used a machine to oxygenate the blood while repairing the hole in the heart of his 18-year-old patient.
Those heady early days of operating on a stilled heart aren't part of a dusty past but in fact relatively recent history. Dr. Doyne Williams Jr. remembers them well because he was one of the trailblazers who helped establish this crucial new field of medicine.
"There weren't any heart surgeons when I started medical school," Williams says.
Now retired, Williams looks back on a career as a physician and surgeon chock-full of noteworthy accomplishments and accolades -- not the least of which was being the chief of cardiac surgery at the University of Arkansas Medical School (now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) and the chief of the cardiovascular surgery unit at St. Vincent Infirmary (now CHI St. Vincent). Williams performed thousands of surgeries including incredibly difficult operations on infants and separating conjoined twins.
His surgical work was done alongside setting up and establishing cardiac programs in two hospitals in Little Rock.
Dr. Gil Campbell, a former chair and professor of surgery at UAMS, praised Williams in a published history of the hospital and school.
"[Williams] developed the busiest and most successful open-heart program in the state. Dr. Williams was a tireless worker and most generous in his support of the department."
When Williams hung up his stethoscope in 1991, St. Vincent's named him Physician of the Year and gave him a plaque that spelled out a few of his achievements.
"[Williams] provided the expertise in developing open-heart surgery, going from 100 cases in his first year to over 1,000 cases in 1991. Williams was also instrumental in developing the first cardiovascular intensive care unit and served as its first medical director."
As he looks back on his career, Williams stresses how patients in his home state received care equal to if not better and more advanced than what was found in bigger states.
"We were on cutting edges of things here in Arkansas," Williams says. "We were doing surgery that very few hospitals or doctors were doing at that time. That was very pleasing."
A SHOP WITH TOOLS
Williams arrived to the world in a New Orleans hospital in 1935. His mother dying when he was 4 meant that he would move to and grow up in El Dorado. Williams' father worked for Lions Chemical Co. and had an MBA from Columbia. His family was small with one sibling, a sister nine years younger than her brother.
"An outdoors kid" is how Williams describes himself. "I became interested in tennis at an early age and did that a lot. I played a lot of war games growing up. That's no surprise for a kid growing up during the second World War."
It was clear to Williams and anybody who observed him then that he had a great ability to focus and was especially adept at working with his hands. Instead of hanging out with a crowd of friends, Williams preferred to be alone in his makeshift workshop behind his house tinkering on various motors.
"I've always been a loner," Williams admits.
He has also been dedicated to various complex tasks and sees those tasks through to the end.
"I made a hydroplane racing boat," Williams notes. "Dad hated it. I had a few tools and I was into making it work. I was using this raggedy motor. I had to work on it all week to make it run on Sunday."
Williams' interest in electrical engineering was strong in his teenage years. He insists he doesn't know exactly when he decided on medical school. His grandfather was "a family practice doctor there in El Dorado. I would listen to some of the conversations he had with people he would see."
Expectations for school were made exceptionally clear to Williams by his father.
"I wasn't summa cum laude in high school but I made good grades," Williams says. "I would have been slain at an early age if I was a goof off!"
Following in the footsteps of his aunt and his father, Williams went off to Conway and Hendrix College.
"It was a great place to be at that time," Williams says. "I played on the tennis team and that was a lot of fun."
Williams bonded with Hendrix's chemistry professor, M.J. McHenry, and excelled in his class, winning the McHenry Chemistry Award in 1957. After Hendrix, Williams was accepted in medical school at UAMS and graduated cum laude in 1961.
In medical school, Williams met and would eventually work beside Dr. Masauki Hara. Hara had performed Arkansas' first heart surgery and was acknowledged as one of the cardiovascular pioneers in the United States. For two years, Williams was a research fellow in Hara's cardiovascular lab at UAMS.
"[Hara] came to class and explained the heart surgery program he was leading," Williams says. "I leapt at the chance. I couldn't imagine anything better."
SURGERY IN THE JUNGLE
An internship at Duke University in North Carolina for Williams was followed by a four-year residency in general surgery at UAMS, which he completed in 1966. Williams was still a young man and the Vietnam War was in full swing. The government-sponsored Berry Plan allowed physicians to defer their military service until they completed medical training in medical school or a residency. Williams took advantage of that plan and entered the Army as a captain.
"Being [an] officer going in was not as vigorous on [the] physical side of things," Williams says. He did have to complete the U.S. Army Medical Service Officer basic course at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Texas' Fort Sam Houston.
"They call that 'charm school' where you learn to be an officer and a gentleman."
Immediately after his training, Williams was deployed to Vietnam where he took on the demanding role of chief of surgery at the 93rd Evac Hospital in Long Binh. The Evac Hospital was the first stop for thousands of war wounded who would often arrive from the battlefield by way of helicopter. Approximately 1,200 emergency room cases and 550 surgeries per month were routine at the Evac Hospital.
"We'd do triage right next to the chopper pad," Williams says. "You sort them out and see who needs to [have surgery] right away and get to them quick as possible. It was long hours but you tried to get a little bit of rest when you could. But when there was a combat operation in your area, you would work long hours."
Army records indicate in one particularly rough 36-hour session Williams performed 161 surgeries. After over a year in Vietnam, Williams was told he was going home and "it didn't take me five seconds to get ready."
The reception Williams and his fellow soldiers received at the Los Angeles airport was typical for the turbulent times.
"[The airport] has these long hallways and so we had to walk past several anti-war groups chanting at us and giving us the finger. I guess it was a good thing I didn't have my gun with me at the time."
Williams was awarded the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service for his work in Vietnam. His citation read in part:
"Through [Williams'] untiring efforts and professional ability, he consistently obtained outstanding results. ... His initiative, zeal, sound judgment and devotion to duty have been in the highest tradition of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit on himself and on the military service."
During his following years as a surgeon for UAMS and then St. Vincent, Williams took on pediatric and adult cases. Quite a few of the cases were not routine procedures and some of the truly complex surgeries required patient support beyond the heart-lung machine that keeps patients alive while their hearts are stopped.
Williams' research lead to the development of "deep hypothermia" in which a patient's body is cooled to seven degrees Celsius.
"You couldn't put little bitty patients on the heart-lung machine. We'd pack them in ice and would cool them down to the temperature where the heart would stop. We had to start warming them back up immediately. You learned not to screw around during the surgery. You moved along."
The innovative work Williams was doing in Arkansas made him a standout among his fellow cardiovascular surgeons. As a result, Williams was routinely asked to speak and give presentations at major surgical and thoracic conferences around the country.
"We made movies of several complex cases I worked on and some of those films I presented at academic meetings, just like you would present a paper," Williams says.
With as much time as Williams devoted to his work, it's no surprise that the doctor met and married a former ICU nurse.
"I took care of a lot of his patients," says Nancy Williams of her husband for 36 years. "He is a quiet guy. He would come in and do his work. He's very unassuming. He is exceptional at what he does but he's not gonna shout it from the rooftops."
"[Nancy] is the smartest person I ever met," Williams says. "She came to work in my office. After a while I realized I couldn't live without her. I consider myself extremely fortunate."
After his retirement in 1991, Williams devoted much of the time he now had to spare to the sport of trapshooting. Like everything else in his life, Williams didn't do trapshooting halfway. He would become an elite shooter, winning 30 world championships and, in 2005, earned an induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
"It was a fun sport," Williams says. "I'm goal-oriented as hell so the sport suited me. We'd get in our motor home and travel around the country to various shoots."
The other passion in Williams' life is hunting. A membership in the Bull Sprig Duck Club near Humphrey was done first to provide a convenient place to hunt. As time wore on, the Duck Club stirred in Williams an interest in and then advocacy for conservation. Williams is a lifetime member of Ducks Unlimited and an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Lifetime Sportsman.
"Both my sons and now grandsons have spent time hunting at Bull Sprig," Williams says. "I used to take them duck hunting and now they take me, thank goodness. Now they tell me to get over in a corner and make duck-like sounds. I'm pretty good at that. My two boys are really great. They make sure I am taken care of."
Of all that he has done, it is obvious that Williams takes the greatest pride in how he advanced the fledgling field of heart medicine in Arkansas. He understands that being there as one of the first is significant. He explains what he was able to accomplish as an extension of who he is. It was a serendipitous meeting of skills and will being present at the exact right time they were needed.
"I love to operate and would love to do it right now," Williams says. "I am a mechanically inclined guy. I enjoyed working with my hands. Anything that is broken, I can't stand it. If I have the opportunity to make it right, I have to fix it."
Dr. Doyne Williams
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: July 18, 1935, New Orleans
• SOMETHING I LEARNED AT AN EARLY AGE THAT'S REMAINED WITH ME TO THIS DAY: Never pretend to be something that you're not.
• MY FAVORITE MEAL: Seafood gumbo.
• MY GOLDEN RULE WHEN IT COMES TO COMMUNICATING WITH PATIENTS: Honesty -- I always tried to be as straightforward as I could be with all my patients.
• WHEN THIS IS ON TV, I'LL GO OUT OF MY WAY TO WATCH: Documentaries on the History Channel and documentaries by Ken Burns.
• MY FAVORITE PLACE ON EARTH: Bull Sprig Duck Club at Humphrey.
• THE ONE THING I WOULD CHANGE ABOUT THE MEDICAL PROFESSION IF I COULD: I wish physicians who choose to go into research could be as equitably compensated as those who choose to go into private practice.
• FOUR GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Sir Winston Churchill, President Dwight Eisenhower, General George Patton and physicist Richard Feynman, PhD.
• ONE WORD THAT SUMS ME UP: Perseverant