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Published on April 27, 2017

Dr. Erik

It was a good day

As told by A. Erik Gundersen, MD, Gundersen's first pediatric heart surgeon, in April 2010

Everyone has good days and bad days at work. I was recently reminded of one of the good days when I had an unexpected visit from a former patient.

Now I have to admit I didn't remember the face, but I suppose I could be forgiven because when Ramona Dale was my patient, she was just 4 years old. She was my first pediatric heart surgery patient back in 1964 when I joined Gundersen Lutheran, fresh from residency.

During our recent visit, Ramona said she remembers her family telling her that before I performed surgery on her, I operated on cows. It's true.

Because the field of heart surgery was still in its infancy at the time, the surgical team needed practical experience before operating on people. The animals received the same concern and care as human patients would, and often the animals went on to live rather full lives. In fact, while operating on one calf, I discovered a heart defect which I repaired. To follow the calf's progress I asked my uncle, Dr. Sig Gundersen, Sr., if he would keep the animal on his farm. Six months later, he called me to say the calf now weighed 1,600 pounds and was eating him out of house and home.

But most of my heart patients had two legs, not four, like Ramona who was born with an abnormal connection between her aorta and pulmonary artery. Her surgery was to correct this defect. While Ramona was my first pediatric patient as a heart surgeon at Gundersen Lutheran, I had studied under Robert Gross, MD, a pioneer in pediatric heart surgery at Boston Children's Hospital and spent a year receiving advanced training in Newcastle, England. I had also done the procedure as a resident, so I knew I could do it.

Although the operation more than 40 years ago was a success, I was pleased to learn that Ramona is now 50 years old and runs marathons. I'm retired from surgery, but a few times a year someone will come up to me, remind me that I was their heart surgeon and thank me. It's a happy reminder of all those good days.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Gundersen's heart program has come a long way since the days of practicing surgery on livestock. We now offer heart surgeries that were beyond imagination back in 1964. For example, Gundersen now offers minimally invasive heart bypass surgery, transcatheter valve replacement surgery and minimally invasive procedures to correct some congenital heart defects. To learn more, visit

Love + Medicine

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