A Life Of Discovery

1082

Dr. Nazih Zuhdi, now 90 years old, is a legendary inventor, innovator and surgeon. Photo by Brent Fuchs.
Dr. Nazih Zuhdi, now 90 years old, is a legendary inventor, innovator and surgeon. Photo by Brent Fuchs.

[dropcap]In[/dropcap] 1952 Zuhdi boarded a flight to the United States to begin his internship at New York’s Columbia University Hospital. But once he arrived, he flatly refused (in a harbinger of the determined single-mindedness he would display during the length of his career) to complete his residency.

“I refused to do it because during my first year, I heard Clarence Dennis talk,” Zuhdi says simply.

[pullquote]It was not easy because to duplicate the heart is not easy. To duplicate the lungs is not easy. It’s hard work. The persistence is what counts.[/pullquote]Dennis, then at the University of Minnesota, had performed the first open-heart surgery in the world with his own heart-lung machine. Although the surgery was not initially successful, Zuhdi was so intrigued by Dennis and his work that nothing would do but for him to join Dennis’s lab.

“Really, I wanted somehow to be different than the regular students who went through with all their learnings, then get their boards of surgery or gynecology or whatever,” Zuhdi says. “And they become either professors or private physicians. That is not what appealed to me.”

Zuhdi, eschewing a residency at Columbia, wrote to Dennis for a place in his lab, which by then had moved to the State University of New York-Downstate Medical Center. Dennis, impressed by the young doctor’s vigor in applying for the lab, immediately offered Zuhdi a place. It was there that Zuhdi began his work on perfecting assisted circulation via the heart-lung machine.

“There was no open heart surgery, period,” Zuhdi explains. “You are born with a defect, you die off, that is it. The heart needs a pump outside the body, and the lungs need an oxygenator. It was not easy because to duplicate the heart is not easy. To duplicate the lungs is not easy. It’s hard work. The persistence is what counts.”