Ross Ungerleider, the pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon, is ranked in the top one percent of his specialty and has been considered an important innovator and contributor to the field of heart care for children. Through the span of his 40-year career, he has fixed the hearts of over 7,000 infants and children with congenital heart disease

Through his surgical contributions, Ross Ungerleider has contributed to vital modification in the field of infant heart surgery that has helped and continues to save precious lives of thousands of children around the world. Yet, this emphatic soul is broken too, we conversed with Ungerleider, and took a walk down the memory lane with him, reminiscing how he gained inspiration to become a heart surgeon of little angels. 

Ungerleider’s excursion started when his mom took him as a kid to the Chicago Roosevelt Museum (presently the Museum of Science and Industry). There he saw a colossal model of the human heart with patches and valves brought down into it on strings like an intricate marionette. 

“I was astonished by how systematic and exact everything looked,” he says. Mark Twain is supposed to have said: “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born; and the day you figured out why.” That was the day I figured out why. I was going to be a heart surgeon.

A long time later, the early summer before he left for his freshman year at Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT), his stepfather was killed in an accident, and 3 months later, his mother, 39 at the time, died suddenly. “I remember that we didn’t understand grief very well back then (the late 1960’s). Our cultural mantra was to “soldier on” so I went back to school a week after burying my mom next to my stepfather, essentially an orphan, lost but doing what I thought I was supposed to do.” When he came back to school he recalls that: “I was strolling over the football field, looking at the stars on a dark, cool Connecticut fall night, and pondering, what will happen to me? How am I going to make it? Thank goodness for the faculty and administration at Wesleyan, who took care of me and helped me survive. I have never forgotten how loss creates an emotional cavern inside, and it was poignantly apparent to me that as I moved through the next chapters of my life, that it was crucial to stay connected to that emotional part of me that ‘feels’ and to try and understand that others carry with them, that same part. I think it has helped me be a better doctor and surgeon.” 

Ungerleider now accepts that his mom from the broken heart of losing her husband—someone she loved deeply. Soon after her death, his English professor (in his freshman English literature class0 read a portion from the Yeats poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” As he read, “I must lie down…in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” the teacher went to the window, raised it to take a full breath, and stated, “You are all too young to comprehend.” And he walked out of the room. It was all for effect. In any case, Ungerleider comprehended.

He graduated from Wesleyan University with a major in English, a thesis in science, and highest honors. It was 1971. The Vietnam War was seething, and the draft made for a flood in applications to medical school—one of the only deferments available—thus making admissions to medical school extremely competitive. It was the time of the “draft lottery” and as birthdays were called, creating the draft order, lives were affected. He was fortunate that his birthday was called in the mid 200 range—he would be safe from the draft. “I still carry with me,” he said “a nagging thought of ‘survivor’s guilt.’ I got to go ahead and pursue my dreams, and I think about all my friends, and young people like me all over the country, whose dreams were every bit as deserving, and who got side railed by a fate, virtual luck of the draw, that seems now to have been extremely unjust. It grieves me still, and I am eternally grateful all at the same time.”

Ungerleider was ultimately accepted into medical schools and chose to attend Rush University in Chicago. After medical school, he went into the cardiac surgery training program at Duke University (in Durham, NC). In 1986, he began doing all the pediatric heart surgery at Duke (having been asked to remain on the faculty) and helped the program begin making the types of contributions that have defined his creativity and talent. He remained at Duke for close to 25 years at Duke, before being recruited, successfully to help lead and grow other programs. 

He has held leadership positions in Oregon, Ohio, North Carolina, lastly, Texas. He has created programs that are based on a culture of learning, innovation and teamwork—for which he is well known and respected by his peers.

Ungerleider accepts that his parents’ separation, trailed by the loss of his stepfather and afterward his mom while he was still so young, gave him the versatility to withstand disappointment and the sympathy expected to think about patients — likely two of the most significant aptitudes required in medicine today. 

As a young boy in Chicago, at a time that his parents were separating, Ungerleider had been hypnotized by the delicate, unending “lub, dub,” of the model heart in the museum hall that he walked through. Thinking back now, he recalls that the heart-lung machine had just become a reality, making heart surgery possible and the display showed concepts of how surgeons might be able to repair serious heart defects with open heart surgery.

In any case, at that point, “I just realized that if I become one of these specialists,” he says, “I could fix the broken hearts of other children.”

Author's Bio: 

Martin Gray is done BSc Degree in MediaLab Arts from the University of Plymouth. He currently lives in New York city. He is a fantastic and reliable content creator with an inspiring and clear vision. He has his own blog on Medium @dailynewnews365