In 1943, World War II was Raging overseas, Glenn Miller was on the radio, Casablanca won “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards, and Merrilyn Dawson, then a 5-year-old girl, went down in history as one of the first in the nation to undergo an experimental heart surgery at the University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinic.
“When I was born, the doctors told my parents I wouldn’t live to see my fifth birthday,” Merrilyn, 70, comments. “And here I am today.”
Merrilyn will participate at the Twin Cities Heart & Stroke Gala ceremony Oct. 25 celebrating the past, present and future advances for cardiovascular medicine.
When Merrilyn was born in 1938, she was diagnosed with patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). In most babies, the passageway between their two major blood vessels—the pulmonary artery and the aorta—closes a few hours after birth. Merrilyn’s passageway, however, never fully closed. The open passageway subsequently carried blood to her lungs rather than back through the aorta.
Having this condition made it hard for Merrilyn to breathe, caused her to tire easily, and gave her skin and fingernails a bluish hue. Because of the PDA, her activities were restricted to playing with paper dolls, coloring, and reading books. She couldn’t risk the possibility of having her heart beat too hard or too fast.
When she was having an especially hard time catching her breath (due to her lungs filling with blood), her parents hooked her up to a diathermy machine, the same machine used to treat tuberculosis back then. Once in awhile she also had blood transfusions.
When she was five, her parents moved from the tiny town of Alba Lake to a boarding house in the ‘big city’ of South St. Paul, where her dad found a job making $1/hour. The couple didn’t know where the closest doctor was, and asked the boarding house owners for a recommendation. They suggested bringing Merrilyn to the University of Minnesota Hospital.
The family made the trek to Minneapolis where Chief of Surgery Dr. Owen Wagensteen, renowned for his skilled hands and interest in experimental techniques, agreed to operate on the little girl.
Merrilyn remembers feeling scared and cold the day of the surgery. She remembers being wheeled into the operating room, and seeing a balcony filled with people above her.
“As I got older I realized the U was a teaching hospital and those people were probably doctors, interns, and students watching the surgery from the observation deck. At the time, though, I was really confused,” Merrilyn recalls.
Dr. Wagensteen successfully completed the surgery, going through her ribs to physically tie off the leaking blood vessel that led to her heart. He—as much as Merrilyn—was a pioneer in the field of heart repair.
When he went down to the waiting room to share the good news, he was smiling and waving his arms around, shouting “It was a success!” Her mother broke down in tears and said “Thank you” over and over. Dr. Wagensteen responded, “Don’t thank me. Thank God.”
Merrilyn still gets choked up thinking about that emotional exchange.
The next thing Merrilyn remembers is waking up in an oxygen tent. She could see her mom and dad through the plastic bubble, but couldn’t be comforted by them. “That was hard to understand as a little girl,” she says.
She received around-the-clock care, and once she was feeling better and free of her ‘bubble,’ had her picture taken for the newspaper. She still has one of the original clippings. The headline read, ‘Rare Heart Operation Makes Girl, 5, Normal.’
She jokes now, “That depends how you define ‘normal.’”
If being normal meant running and playing, though, she was as normal as normal can be. For the first time ever, she was able to run around with the other kids.
The excitement, however, was short-lived. At age 8, Merrilyn caught the contagious measles virus—one of the major causes of death in children in the 1940s. She had such a high fever that delirium set in, causing her heart to pump extra hard. The stress caused one of the ties around her heart to start coming loose.
“I had all kinds of restrictions after that,” she says.
She had a heart catheterization when she was 15. Following the procedure, she could finally participate in phy ed class, ride a bike, and go to school dances. After that, she hardly gave a thought to her heart at all.
‘You have a PDA!’
She graduated from Macalester College, married Darryl Dawson, and adopted two “absolutely wonderful” children, Kurt and Connie. The family settled in New Brighton, where Merrilyn taught preschool for 21 years.
As time went on, her full-time job started to take a toll on her. Even though she was in good shape, it was suddenly exhausting, she says, trying to keep up with active three-and four-year-olds. She made a decision to cut back to three days a week, then two, then eventually worked two half-days.
At age 60, she decided it was time to retire.
“It just seemed like too much for me,” she says.
Around this time she also noticed—while singing in her church choir—she couldn’t sustain notes as long. “I figured it was just part of aging,” she says.
Her daughter, though, thought there might be a link between her mom’s low energy levels and her heart. Connie asked her mom to bring it up with her general practitioner, just in case. She did. Her doctor administered a stress test and ordered x-rays to chart her heart’s blood flow. The x-rays showed two places where her heart wasn’t getting enough blood. She was referred to cardiologist Dr. Mark Kramer, who took one listen to Merrilyn’s strong heartbeat and announced, “You have a PDA!”
“I told him, ‘No. I had a PDA, but it was fixed,’” Merrilyn says.
He suggested that Merrilyn have an MRI to make sure the artery wasn’t leaking again.
“They showed me the x-rays, and for a person my size—I’m only 4-feet 11-inches—I couldn’t believe how big my heart looked,” Merrilyn says. “Dr. Kramer told me ‘Yes, it is big, because it’s been working so hard.’”
Dr. Kramer determined that the sutures from the original surgery were loose and needed to be repaired as soon as possible. Her heart was dangerously close to giving out.
She was referred to Dr. John Bass, director of pediatric cardiology at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, Fairview. (She was referred to a pediatric cardiologist because the corrective procedure she needed is typically done on babies and young children.)
In the meantime, Merrilyn was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and asked Dr. Bass if the surgery could wait. She wanted to take some time off and recuperate down in Florida. Because of the urgency of her situation, the hospital called Merrilyn while she was still down South and scheduled the surgery for that spring. They weren’t taking any chances.
The heart procedure was much less traumatic than when Merrilyn was a little girl. Doctors inserted a small device—the Amplatzer septal occluder—through a leg catheter and into Merrilyn’s blood vessel to close the hole. She was under conscious sedation during the procedure and says she even tried joking with Dr. Bass while he was in the middle of the surgery.
“He apologized but said he couldn’t respond right then,” she laughs. “He says he’ll always remember me because I was the only patient who tried joking with him while I was on the operating table.”
A few minutes later she heard him say, ‘Here it goes. Now it’s in place.’ and instantly couldn’t hear her loud heartbeat anymore.
“I thought, I’m 67 years old and I’m finally cured. It was wonderful. I had tears running down my face. If I could’ve, I would’ve jumped off that table and jumped up and down and hollered.”
She was in the hospital for a few hours and discharged. She didn’t even need stitches.
Based on her experiences, she urges others to listen to their doctors, yet ask questions (“You have a responsibility to yourself,” she comments.), stay active, maintain a healthy diet, lean on your faith, surround yourself with good people, and try to stay positive—no matter what cards you happen to be dealt.
She wouldn’t undo the past even if she could, she says. Her heart condition helped shape her into the person she is today.
“I’m no hero,” she says in a quiet voice.
Then she adds with a big smile, “But I am a survivor.”