Today, being a surgeon is like being a commercial airline pilot: One must complete hundreds of hours of educational training before flying solo with human lives in his or her hands. But back in 100-year-old Dr. Ellsworth Wareham’s day, surgeons studied diagrams and simulated human procedures on dogs before operating on a patient by themselves.
Wareham, of Loma Linda, Calif., was one of the earliest doctors to practice open heart surgery in the United States, and the first at Loma Linda University, whose cardiothoracic surgery program has been ranked among the top heart hospitals in the United States.
“You know how people will say they had ‘their call’ to something? I felt that I was actually called to be a doctor,” Wareham told FoxNews.com. “There had never been any question in my mind about this."
Throughout his lifetime, Wareham has garnered as much attention for his career as a surgeon as he has for his longevity. At the age of 100, Wareham still does all of his own yard work and climbs up and down the stairs in his two-story home.
Maintaining his good health has no doubt been made easier due to the ideals of Wareham’s religion and community. Loma Linda has one of the highest concentrations of Seventh-Day Adventists in the world, and living a healthy lifestyle is the faith’s main ideal. The town has banned smoking, and alcohol is scarcely sold. As a result, Loma Linda is the only so-called “Blue Zone” of the U.S., an area where men and women live measurably longer lives than the average American.
Wareham himself adopted a vegan diet in midlife after reading research that showed animal protein raises cholesterol. He credits his good health— and his clearness of mind, the thing he’s most grateful for today— in large part to that decision.
Although he retired from operating in the surgical unit at Loma Linda University at age 74, Wareham mentored and assisted residents at the university until age 95.
Inspiration at sea
Wareham served in World War II as a U.S. Navy doctor, and one day on a destroyer near the Philippines, his captain became injured after falling off the boat. Despite Wareham’s insistence to immediately operate on the man— who had a ruptured discus and a rigid abdomen— surgeons delayed the procedure, which eventually led to his captain’s death from an abdominal infection.
The issue of unqualified doctors wasn’t a problem exclusive to the Navy, Wareham pointed out. The American Board of Surgery, which certifies doctors and the institutions where they train, was not formed until 1937, and the American Board of Thoracic Surgery was formed in 1948.
Still, Wareham said, his captain’s death compelled him to want to make a difference.
“I decided then that I would become a well-qualified surgeon,” Wareham said.
Open-heart surgery was also only hypothetical when Wareham left the Navy in 1947. The procedure that is thought to be the first in the world wouldn’t be completed until 1953, when Dr. John H. Gibbons, of the Jefferson University Medical Center in Philadelphia, used a heart-lung machine to close a large secundum atrial septal defect (ASD) in an 18-year-old woman. An ASD is a hole in the septum, or muscular wall, that separates the heart’s two upper chambers, called the atria, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The condition occurs when part of the atrial septum does not form properly.
The year of the operation, Wareham had been a senior surgery resident in New York. “I said to myself, that is the future of surgery, and I should get some training in it,” Wareham said.
Wareham’s mentors advised him to study chest surgery before he concluded his graduate program. The training involved operating on the chest and the chest wall— a method that preceded open heart surgery. Wareham prolonged his residency for two years, and continued his training at the St. Francis Hospital for Cardiac Children in Roslyn, New York.
“When I got into practice, I got paid fees for doing surgery, and I thought, ‘this is really something: I have all this fun and get paid for it,’” Wareham said. “It’s like any hobby— like a little old lady knitting with her hands. It’s just a matter of [the idea that] we’re all wired to do certain things that we enjoy.”
Saving lives abroad
After his residency, in 1955, Wareham returned to Loma Linda University, where he had previously completed his initial medical training in 1937. He performed the first open heart surgery at the school in 1958. For 22 years, Wareham served as chief of cardiothoracic surgery until he retired at age 74— two years later than the typical maximum retirement age for cardiothoracic surgeons at the medical college.
In the 1960s, Wareham traveled with a team of doctors and nurses, including his wife, Barbara Wareham, a nurse, to train surgeons with the International Heart Institute. Among their destinations were Pakistan, Greece and Saudi Arabia— where, prior to the Loma Linda University Overseas Heart Surgery Team's arrival, many people who needed these operations often died.
“Here in America, say California, if a person comes to me and I don’t do surgery on him, he can go down the street and get it done by somebody else,” Wareham said. “But in most countries, there was no way for them to have heart surgery. If they had money, they’d go abroad to England or the U.S. It was a very challenging situation, and the people were very grateful.”
Training the future of medicine
Dr. Leonard Bailey, the surgeon who famously transplanted a baboon heart into a baby at Loma Linda University in 1984, trained under Ellsworth Wareham as a medical student in the late 1960s. The child, Baby Fae, was born prematurely with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, and Bailey’s historic yet controversial surgery made international headlines.
“I think if there was anyone in this industry that influenced me the most, it would be Dr. Wareham,” Bailey, 72, told FoxNews.com. “During my freshman year as a medical student, I ran up to the hospital and watched him teach a young surgeon how to close a hole in the heart, and this confirmed my impressions and opinion, and I thought, ‘That’s something I wanted to do.’”
Wareham was the one who encouraged Bailey— now, a distinguished professor of pediatrics and surgery and surgeon-in-chief at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital— to study child heart surgery in the first place.
“He sort of shepherded my career path in a direction that I really wanted to go, but [I] didn’t know how to go about doing it without him,” said Bailey, who has been practicing surgery since 1976.
When asked to describe Wareham, Bailey said he was a “no-compromise surgeon.”
“He taught us from the opposite side of the table, so we learned how to operate properly. If a single stitch was not up to his standards, we did it over— I learned that from him, and I also learned how to be a gentleman. I just never saw him bluesy. He understood his emotions very well. He was almost better under stress than when things were relaxed.”
The two things Wareham is most proud of are teaching and traveling with the Overseas Heart Surgery Team.
“The training of the people is the most rewarding experience,” Wareham said. “You can duplicate yourself. You can do better than duplicate yourself. I would say the majority of the fellows I trained were more capable than I— more talented than I. They did superb work.”
Building the Wareham legacy
Ellsworth and Barbara Wareham met at Glendale Adventist Hospital in 1948, when Ellsworth, 35, was a resident in surgery, and Barbara, 21, was a nursing student.
“Once I went out with him, the younger men didn’t quite do it,” Barbara, 86, told FoxNews.com. “He arrived at the door with flowers and tickets to the Light Opera. I thought he was a keeper at the time.”
Barbara and Ellsworth raised their five children on a 40-acre apple orchard in Oak Glen, Calif., about 22 miles from Loma Linda University. In tasking their children with helping maintain the orchard— tending to the irrigation and sorting the crops for merchants— Barbara and Ellsworth, both of whom grew up on farms, hoped to teach them the importance of hard work and self-sufficiency.
Today, two of their children are attorneys, two are doctors and one works for the American Red Cross.
“When they left for college, that was the end of their farming career,” Barbara joked.
Julie Wareham, 59, the Warehams’ only daughter, is a psychiatrist in Oak Glen, Calif. As a child, she would shadow her father in the surgical unit at Loma Linda University, and as a teenager, she would sit in on his surgeries during a time when patient privacy laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) were lax.
“I just remember him reassuring the family members of people that are cut from stem to stern when they do those coronary bypass surgeries, and just reassuring the family and how soft-spoken he was,” Julie Wareham told FoxNews.com. “He was a very good teacher from what his residents and fellows would say— he made it look really easy. Teaching was what he really enjoyed doing.”
Life after the operating room
Each day, Wareham gets eight or nine hours of rest, wakes up at 5 a.m., eats two meals— always whole-wheat cereal with almond milk for breakfast— exercises, and spends time with his family. He continues to refrain from consuming animal products, referring to a study out of the Cleveland Clinic that found heart disease could be stopped by adopting a low-fat, vegan diet.
“If your cholesterol is under 150, your chances of getting a heart attack are very low,” Wareham said. “My cholesterol is 117. I wouldn’t even bother getting an electrocardiogram (EKG) if I had chest pain. One-third of people in the U.S. will die of coronary heart disease. If you can prevent it, it’s worthwhile.”
While Wareham enjoys retirement, he said there doesn’t seem to be much free time.
“I will read quite a bit, and I do my own landscaping pretty much. I trim my bushes and mow my lawn, and I get my physical exercise that way,” he said. “There would be people who wouldn’t cut a blade of grass because they don’t enjoy it, but I enjoy trimming my grass.”
And although he still holds a tangential interest in medicine during retirement, Wareham said he no longer studies it. But one could argue that his penchant for healthy living and intricate knowledge of the human body may have given the centenarian a leg up on longevity.
Wareham doesn’t use a cane and has always opted for stairs instead of taking the elevator. He cites research out of Stanford University from about 25 years ago that suggested a 46 percent decreased incidence of death by heart disease by climbing a flight of stairs 20 times per week. A clipping of the study is pasted on the stairwell in his home, he said.
Jason Wareham, one of Wareham’s eight grandchildren— and the only one among Wareham’s children and grandchildren to join the U.S. Armed Forces— described his grandfather as someone who leads by example.
“I would not be who or what I am today if he hadn’t been around,” Jason Wareham, 34, a major in the Marine Corps based in Washington D.C., told FoxNews.com. “He described heart surgery as a collection of small tasks done well. That phrase has always been present for me in my life as I’ve taken on challenges.”
Jason, an appellate defense attorney for the Marines, was deployed once in Afghanistan from October 2010 to May 2011. When Jason was first commissioned to the Marine Corps, Ellsworth pinned on his Second Lieutenant bars.
“He wore his naval uniform from World War II,” Jason said, “and of course it still fit.”