A Legacy of Heart Care

A Legacy of Heart Care

In honor of American Heart Month, we celebrate Dr. Willis J. Potts, a pioneer cardiac surgeon at Children’s Memorial Hospital (now Lurie Children’s). He became internationally known for his surgical creation of direct aortopulmonary connections for babies with severe cyanotic congenital heart diseases. These diseases are commonly referred to as “blue baby syndromes,” which comes from the color of the deoxygenated blood circulating through the babies’ bodies.

Dr. Potts with Caesar the dog
Dr. Willis J. Potts with young Diane Schnell, and Caesar the dog, on whom Potts perfected his aortopulmonary connection surgical technique.

On September 13, 1946, Diane Schnell (shown in the photo with Dr. Potts) became the first patient to undergo a historic aortopulmonary anastomosis. The procedure was made possible by a special vascular clamp developed by Potts, which he perfected the use of with Caesar, the dog in the photograph. After the surgery, Diane recovered quickly and left the hospital 19 days later.

Patients from across the United States and beyond came to Children’s Memorial for this lifesaving procedure, building Dr. Potts’ international acclaim. When Dr. Potts joined Children’s Memorial’s staff in 1930, there was only one pediatric surgeon in the United States; by his retirement in 1960, there were 75.

In an article that appeared in the June 1956 edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Potts wrote about his views on the pediatric heart: “The physical heart of a child is just a piece of living muscle marvelously adapted to its sole function of pumping blood. It is a rugged mechanism that will tolerate the ravages of infection, the scars resulting from impaired blood supply, and the approaches of surgeons’ tools. It is the most efficient self-sustaining pump in the world. In a philosophical sense, the heart of a child is a delicate mechanism, sensitive to the slightest wounds of fear, insecurity, indifference, thoughtlessness, and misunderstanding.” 

Read more about the history of the Heart Center and Children’s Memorial in the book Images of America: Children’s Memorial Hospital of Chicago available on Amazon.com.

Lurie Children’s Heart Center is ranked 3rd in the nation for child cardiology and heart surgery by U.S.News World Report. 

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