A Long, Storied History: Dr. Michael Hess

MICHAEL HESS, M.D.

MICHAEL HESS, M.D.

VCU Health’s reputation as a leader in cardiac transplantation has its roots in the 1960s, in the MCV West Hospital laboratory of Richard Lower, M.D.

“Dr. Lower was very low key, very soft spoken and fanatically dedicated to cardiac transplantation,” says cardiologist Michael Hess, M.D., who worked with Lower, beginning in the mid-1970s.

Lower studied under pioneering transplant surgeon Norman Shumway, M.D., at Stanford. In 1959, during his residency there, Lower transplanted part of a dog’s heart to a second dog, which lived for eight days—a record at the time.

He was recruited to MCV by David Hume, M.D., who with his mentee H.M. Lee, M.D., performed Virginia’s first kidney transplantation at the medical college in 1957. Lower arrived in Richmond in 1965 and continued his work in animal transplantation.

In 1966, South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard, M.D., spent six months visiting Lower’s laboratory, studying his approach. He then studied with Shumway.

Today, the organization is the world’s leading scientific society of transplant physicians and surgeons and operates the International Registry 
for Heart and Lung Transplantation, the only database of its kind in the world.

As the possibility of human transplantation grew closer, many wondered if Barnard, Lower, and Shumway would be the first to perform the surgery. Their rivalry was explored in “Every Second Counts: The Race to Transplant the First Human Heart” by Donald McRae.
In the end, Barnard performed the world’s first successful human heart transplant in 1967, while the surgeons who had trained him in their techniques followed in 1968. (Shumway, the first in the U.S. at Stanford; Lower, the first in Virginia at MCV).

Hess later would tease Lower about this tension. “I knew how to make him angry. You’d just say, `Chris Barnard.’”

Hess says his work with Lower “started out as a hallway conversation in West Hospital.” It was a Friday when he introduced himself to the surgeon and expressed interest in caring for his post-transplant patients. “He looked me square in the eye and he said, `Well, I have two new patients coming in to the clinical research unit Monday morning. Go to work on them.’”

In the early days of transplantation, the brain-dead organ donors were at MCV, and transplants were performed locally. “Lower made a very significant contribution when he clearly showed in his lab that he could preserve a heart for four hours and it would still work,” says Hess.

This led to MCV’s taking part in the first long-distance transport in May 1977. Retired MCV surgeon Szabolcs Szentpetery, M.D., who was a fellow at the time, was sent to Indianapolis to retrieve the heart. The young doctor was nervous that “it wouldn’t work and we would lose everything,” says Hess. “And it worked like a champ. That revolutionized the field.”

Hess himself was a revolutionary. In 1981, claiming “I had no one to talk to,” he created the International Society of Heart and Lung Transplantation at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association. “I thought it was very important to start the project, number one, to have an exchange of ideas and good science and number two, it was obvious the field was going to grow and somebody had to take a leadership role and maintain quality and standards,” says Hess, who served as the first president—even bringing in a Canadian colleague passing by the room to make the first meeting truly international.

Today, the organization is the world’s leading scientific society of transplant physicians and surgeons and operates the International Registry for Heart and Lung Transplantation, the only database of its kind in the world.

“This was a landmark event,” says Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., cardiothoracic surgeon and chair of Surgery. “Without the ISHLT, thoracic organ transplant science and practice would have never been widely spread and benefited thousands of patients. Mike Hess deserves all the credit for this very remarkable endeavor.”

The Pauley Heart Center wishes all the best to Dr. Michael Hess, who retired in June. He came out of retirement in 2013 to start Virginia’s first cardio-oncology program at VCU. Our faculty, staff, and supporters thank Dr. Hess for his many years of inspiring work and dedication to his patients.