First Open Heart Surgery in BC – at VGH – October 29, 1957

by Glennis Zilm

Norma Guttormsson (Class of Aug’58) on the left in her VGH School of Nursing Student Uniform

VGH Student Nurses wrote some wonderful letters during their residence years, and the School of Nursing Alumnae Association Archives has a few collections of these. Last year, we reported on a collection of letters from Pat Barff (Class of 1929) donated to the VGH School of Nursing Alumnae Archives. This prompted Norma Guttormsson (Class of August 1958) to look up a collection of letters she wrote to her parents during her student years in the 1950s.

Although her father, a physician and surgeon, had worked in Vancouver, by the time she decided to enter Nursing, her parents had moved to Saskatchewan. They saved 56 of her letters home. Many of them are in their original envelopes, although some stamps have been torn off the corners for family “collectors.” The accumulation provides a wonderful snapshot of the life of a young woman living in residence during the mid-1950s, and the correspondence is full of social details on the times. Any history buff would love the messages. Guttormsson writes extremely well; one gets caught up in the story of her life, her nursing activities, her social events, and the details of the times.

As she was a member of the UBC/ VGH class and some of the letters pertain to the first and final years at UBC, she is considering donating them to the UBC Archives. They definitely should be preserved as a complete collection.

One of the most interesting letters (but they are all interesting) is her description of the first open-heart surgery in BC. We are printing a portion of this letter to give you an idea of what happened – and so you can be reminded how health care has changed radically during our lifetimes. (Although she uses abbreviations in the letter, some of these have been spelled out in the excerpt.)

 “Last week the first operation with the heart-lung machine ever to be performed in B.C. was done on an 8-year-old boy with an atrial-septal defect. The foramen ovale did not close at birth which presented as a congenital defect. He was anaesthetized generally (intra-trachea) until the chest was opened and the heart exposed. His circulation was then taken over by the machine which stopped his respirations and heart beat thus allowing the surgeon to open the heart and close the hole. Prior to surgery – [but] in the O.R. – a cut down was made in the superior and inferior vena cavas and the femoral artery. When the heart surgery commenced, blood from the machine where it was oxygenated, warmed and filtered passed to the femoral artery to the systemic circulation. The circulation to the leg below the cut down was cut off during this time which apparently is not harmful for this short time. The patient is sufficiently anaesthetized to remain asleep while the machine carried on the circulation. The O2 in the blood apparently does not wear off the anaesthetic.

It was highly successful. Two Vancouver heart surgeons performed – no one was allowed in but those who took part, but spectators were able to watch from the gallery. The surgeon told the nursing staff about the operation … and it was of interest to learn that heart grafting is in the near future. With the machine they will be able to put in a new heart in place of a diseased one.”


The two surgeons mentioned in Guttormsson’s letter – who will be well-remembered by VGH graduates of the 1950s through the 1980s – were Dr. Phil Ashmore and Dr. Peter Allen. Dr. Ashmore died September 1, 2011 and his obituary carried a brief note about the same surgery.

Taken from the Obituary:

 “He did the first open heart operation in April 1957 with Dr. Peter Allen, the beginning of a long professional relationship. Along with a spectacular group of Vancouver colleagues, the team moved pediatric surgery forward for the benefit of all British Columbians. Phil had a great eye for talent, and brought a young Dr. Graham Fraser to Vancouver. He became a pioneer in pediatric general surgery, a long time colleague and an amazing friend to Phil’s last day. In 1976, Phil started to plan for a new pediatric children’s facility with his friend and head of pediatrics, Dr. Rob Hill. They worked tirelessly to lobby government, design the space, survey construction and organize the moving from V.G.H. into the new Children’s Hospital in July 1982. John Tegenfeld, C.E.O. of B.C. Childrens, was an instrumental member of that team. In 1983, Phil brought on his young colleague Jacques LeBlanc, whom he mentored with love and respect. Jacques carried on his work after Phil’s retirement and remained a lifetime support and true friend.” 



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