When the first fetal cardiac surgery was performed at Children’s Hospital Boston in 2001 – entering Jack Miller’s heart through his mother’s abdomen and opening blood flow – the world was stunned. But more than 60 years earlier, another operation was equally game-changing.
It was 1938, a time before heart-lung bypass, when ether and chloroform were only starting to be supplanted by more controllable anesthetics, when tinkering with the heart or even opening the chest were seen as dangerous and taboo.
Tinkering was what Robert E. Gross, chief surgical resident at The Children’s Hospital, liked to do. He was interested in a congenital heart condition known as patent ductus arteriosus, a passageway between the pulmonary artery and the aorta that’s supposed to close after birth — but doesn’t.