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Remembering one of Charlotte's first transplant surgeons

Karen Garloch
Karen Garloch writes on Health for The Charlotte Observer. Her column appears each Tuesday.
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Dr. Philip Hess, 75, died Nov. 21, 2013. Longtime Charlotte heart surgeon with the Sanger Clinic at Carolinas Medical Center. After retirement, he worked as a physician with Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region.

One of my most memorable experiences as medical writer at the Observer occurred during my first year in Charlotte when I observed a heart transplant at Charlotte Memorial Hospital, now Carolinas Medical Center.

The occasion was to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the world’s first heart transplant, which had been performed Dec. 3, 1967, by South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard.

In the Charlotte operating room, on that evening in November 1987, the surgeon in charge was Dr. Philip Hess, who had been part of the team of doctors who performed Charlotte’s first heart transplant in January 1986.

Heart transplants had become pretty routine in Charlotte. But it was still a thrill for me to watch as Hess and his colleagues took a healthy donor heart from a red and white Igloo cooler and placed it into the open chest of a 48-year-old patient whose diseased, dying heart had been removed.

I thought of that night recently when I read in the obituaries that Dr. Hess had died Nov. 21. He was 75. His kind and low-key manner was reflected in the way the obit made only a brief mention of his role in that history-making heart transplant.

“He was so humble, and such a terrific person,” said Jay Veale, a perfusionist who had worked side-by-side with Dr. Hess for 25 years. Veale operated the heart-lung mahine to make sure patients stayed alive while their hearts and lungs were stopped during surgery.

The two men were so close that Dr. Hess and his wife became the godparents to the Veales’ five children. Veale was asked by the Hess family to deliver one of the eulogies at the recent memorial service. Here is part of what he said: “Every memory I have of Phil is positive.” In both family and professional life, “he thought he was the luckiest guy in the world.”

I went back to re-read what I had written about Dr. Hess after the 1987 heart transplant, and I was surprised to see that I had not only quoted him, I had also quoted Veale. He was there, right beside his surgeon friend, all those years ago.

In 1999, because of complications from diabetes, Dr. Hess retired from surgery, but a few years later he started working for Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region, sharing his inimitable style of comfort with many dying patients.

In a fortunate coincidence, he became one of the doctors who took care of my friend, Kathleen McClain, who was a hospice patient in the last years of her life. When she heard Dr. Hess was having health problems too, she wrote him a note of encouragement. He contacted her later to thank her – and to ask a favor. He had spilled coffee on her letter and wondered if she would mind printing him another copy. He wanted to frame it.

Kathleen, who died June 13, would have loved knowing that her framed letter hangs in the Hess home today, right next to the award he received from the Charlotte Business Journal as 2012 Physician of the Year.

It was so like him to value private praise from a single patient as much as public acclaim from the community.

Garloch: 704-358-5078
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