It's probably safe to say that most of us don't exactly look forward to getting older. Howard Anderson is an exception. "I'm going to be 60 in five years, and I can't wait," Howard tells us. In fact, he considers every birthday a gift. Howard, a St. Peter, Minnesota, resident, was born with aortic stenosis — a heart defect that, back in the 1960s, often proved fatal. And Howard was born early in that decade.
By the time Howard was 3 years old, he was in "rough shape." That's when his parents brought him from their home in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, to Mayo Clinic, hoping for a cure. They were told their young son could have a new procedure to treat the defect or they could let nature take its course. Surgery itself was a risk. "Mom and Dad were told I might not make it," Howard says. But his parents felt it was their best bet. The gamble paid off. "I flew through surgery, and I moved on with my life," he says. "That surgery gave me a chance to experience things. I've lived a good life and a very full life."
Fifty years after the procedure that allowed him to enjoy that life, Howard reached out to the staff working in cardiovascular surgery at Mayo Clinic. "I knew the doctors who took care of me would be gone," he says. Still, he wanted to say thanks. "On my 53rd birthday, it was my mission and goal to reach out to all of you," he wrote. "I am a survivor because of your hard work to help a sick kid from northwest Minnesota. I am here because of you."
Though they hadn't been part of his care, the staff who received the letter were deeply moved. "I think because we see a lot of very sick patients, it can be easy for providers to forget those patients who walk out of the unit and go on to live longer, happy, productive lives," Renee Jones tells us. Jones, operations manager in Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, called Howard to thank him for his letter — and invite him back to Mayo Clinic.
Howard's visit included a tour of Mayo, during which he says tour guides "took me to a museum and showed me the heart-lung machine that kept me alive during surgery." He learned the man who led his surgical team, John W. Kirklin, M.D., had played an important role in refining that machine. "Dr. Kirklin was one of the first surgeons in the world to perform heart surgery with a heart-lung machine, and Mr. Anderson was one of the first children to have heart surgery with a heart-lung machine," Jones tells us. "So they were both pioneers, in a sense."
Not long after that visit, Howard returned to Mayo Clinic as the guest of honor at the Kirklin Dinner, an annual event honoring its namesake, who passed away in 2004. Having Howard at the dinner "was very, very special, for us and for him," Jones tells us. "To be able to have one of Dr. Kirklin's success stories, one of the patients who indeed went on to live a life that he might not otherwise have had, was a profound affirmation of the importance of the work that all of our staff do," Jones tells us. It's the reason, she says, that she and others work at Mayo Clinic. "We're here for the Howard Andersons."
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