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Dr. John Ochsner, who pioneered heart surgery in Louisiana, dies at 91

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By John Pope, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune | Posted July 06, 2018 at 02:55 PM | Updated July 06, 2018 at 03:21 PM

Dr. John Ochsner addresses reporters at a press conference at Ochsner Foundation Hospital and Clinic to announce a hospital expansion September 6, 2001. (Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

Dr. John L. Ochsner Sr., a surgeon who performed about 12,000 operations, including the first heart transplant in Louisiana, during a career spanning nearly six decades, died Friday morning (July 6) at Ochsner Medical Center of complications of influenza, said his daughter-in-law, Lori Ochsner. He was 91.

The son of Dr. Alton Ochsner, one of the five founders of the medical institution bearing his surname, Dr. Ochsner was both in New Orleans in 1927 and earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at Tulane University. He was chief surgical resident at Baylor University Affiliated Hospitals and Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.

He completed his surgical residency under Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, a world-renowned cardiac surgeon who had trained under Dr. Ochsner’s father in New Orleans. In turn, Dr. Ochsner in 2000 was one of only 16 surgeons to receive the Michael E. DeBakey Surgical Award in recognition of their stellar careers. 

From left, Dr. Suneeta Walia, Dr. John Ochsner and Beth Walker at the Ochsner Goes Pink Gala at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Oct. 5, 2012. (Steven Forster for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

Dr. Ochsner joined the Ochsner Clinic staff in 1961, starting a career that continued until shortly before his death, Ochsner Health System spokeswoman Giselle Hecker said.

In 1966, he was named chairman of the Department of Surgery, a title he held until he became chairman emeritus in 2005. Despite his emeritus status, he kept coming in to his office, Hecker said.

In a 1990 interview, Dr. Ochsner said he was happiest in surgery.

Dr. John Ochsner performing heart surgery on June 12, 1979. (The Times-Picayune archive)

“I feel I’m best at that,” he said. “I feel I can do it as well as anybody in the world, I’m competent at it, and it’s fun. Surgery is an art as much as a science. . . . You have to improvise almost every case — no two cases are the same — and that’s where the fun of surgery comes in, making something new that particular moment that you’ve never seen before. . . . It’s like opening up a package; it’s always a little different.”

Describing himself as a “semi-workaholic,” Dr. Ochsner said he generally performed three to five operations a day.

His father, who could be a taskmaster, called him “the best surgeon I ever saw,” John Wilds and Ira Harkey wrote in “Alton Ochsner, Surgeon of the South.”

Dr. John L. Ochsner, left, and a member of the Ochsner transplant team rush a donor heart to the operating room to be implanted into 12-year-old Chad Streeter of Monroe, in May 1986. Streeter died of complications six months later. (The Times-Picayune archive)

Among the most dramatic procedures of Dr. Ochsner’s career were heart transplants. The drama generally began with a call that a donor heart was ready, followed by Dr. Ochsner’s calls to alert the recipient and the surgical team and, on at least one occasion, a call to his wife, explaining that they wouldn’t be able to celebrate their wedding anniversary that night because he had to work.

Dr. Ochsner performed dozens of these procedures. For the first 20 or so, he flew to retrieve the donor heart and preserve it until he installed it in the recipient’s chest.

In each of those operations, “the best feeling you get is when the new heart starts off,” Dr. Ochsner said. “It’s been still, and suddenly it begins to beat, and then you know. Luckily, we have yet to have that terrible experience when it doesn’t work. . . .

“It’s not that difficult of an operation – I do a lot of operations that are much more technically demanding – but there’s nothing more breathtaking than the sense that you’re stuck there with not knowing if the heart’s going to come back, and you have an empty space for a while when you take it out.”

Dr. James Daniel Hardy, left, and Dr. John L. Ochsner, right, examine X-ray images of a patient who suffered injuries to his heart at Ochsner Foundation Hospital in April 1975. (The Times-Picayune archive)

Dr. Ochsner performed his first heart transplant Jan. 8, 1970, when he led the team that gave a new heart to William I. Taylor, 52, of Metairie. Taylor had suffered two heart attacks and was told he could not survive without a replacement. 

Heart-transplant surgery was in its infancy then: The first such procedure had been performed in South Africa in December 1967, followed a month later by the first in the United States. There were no national organ registries, and there was no reliable drug to reduce the possibility that the body would reject the new heart.

“We were flying by the seat of our pants,” Dr. Ochsner said in a 2000 interview.

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