A 'Blue Baby' Returns to The Johns Hopkins Hospital

Johns Hopkins welcomes back Michael Edenburn, 76, who as a 2½-year-old patient underwent the operation that gave birth to modern cardiac surgery and has saved thousands of children’s lives since.

Published in Dome - Dome September/October 2019

All photos created by Gary Logan. 

On a recent August morning, Hugh Michael Edenburn walked into the atrium of Johns Hopkins Children’s Center at his usual swift pace. When information receptionist Elyse Geber learned who the 76-year-old visitor was, however, she had to catch her breath.

“Oh my God,” she greeted him, placing her hand on her heart. “You’re history.

On Oct. 2, 1945, Edenburn, then 2 years and 7 months, underwent the “blue baby” operation to repair a congenital heart defect that had taken the lives of thousands of infants until the groundbreaking surgery was developed and introduced at Johns Hopkins in 1944. As a former respiratory therapist at the Children’s Center, Geber knew all about tetralogy of Fallot, the deadly condition marked by a bluish or “cyanotic” tint to the child’s skin due to the lack of blood flow to the lung. She also knew the history of the landmark surgery led by Alfred Blalock, of the essential diagnostic work by pediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig and of the critical laboratory studies by surgical technician Vivien Thomas. To have a patient in front of her three-quarters of a century later, Geber felt, was astonishing. Colleagues aware of his arrival were equally thrilled.

“As a heart surgeon at Johns Hopkins, it’s a fantastic honor to meet you,” said Robert Higgins, director of the Department of Surgery. “This is the place that initially gave us the ability to treat people with heart disease. To be in the presence of somebody who was treated by the person who started it all is pretty remarkable.”
“You are an example and a reminder of our past, of innovations in cardiac surgery and how pediatric cardiology came to be a specialty,” said Shelby Kutty, co-director of the Blalock-Taussig-Thomas Pediatric and Congenital Heart Center at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. “Your visit has helped me think through the history of the Blue Baby operation and the extreme collaboration that made it possible.”

“Amazing!” added Johns Hopkins Hospital President Redonda Miller, shaking her head as Edenburn, trim and beaming with energy, approached her in the lobby of the Billings Administration Building, the home of the original hospital. “Do you feel well?”

“Yes, of course,” answered Edenburn. “My doctors tell me my blood chemistry is that of a very healthy 25-year-old. I got the results in my computer; I can show you,” he added, leaving Miller doubled over with laughter.

Michael Edenburn with Redonda Miller1_1200x628

When Edenburn was a toddler in Waterloo, Iowa, his health was dramatically different. Without enough oxygen to reach his lungs, doctors informed his mother, he would be bedridden by 3 years old and dead by 5 or 6. Prepare yourself, they said.

Instead, after reading an article in Collier’s magazine about Blalock’s revolutionary surgery, she prepared to take her son to Baltimore. He was a candidate for the procedure that provided a second chance at oxygenation by joining an artery leaving the heart to an artery leading to the lungs, a procedure that came to be known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Taussig logged Edenburn into her patient registry as Blue Baby #44.

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A Lifesaving Journey

Edenburn remembers only a few of his first moments at Johns Hopkins: the front doors of the hospital, the towering Christ statue immediately past the doors and standing in his crib on the ward crying because he missed his mother. He recalls Taussig thumping her fingers on his chest before the surgery to feel for palpitations in his heart. He also remembers that, after the operation, he was able to breathe freely for the first time in his life.

Over the next six years, Edenburn had follow-up visits at Johns Hopkins before his family moved to Worcester, Massachusetts. As he got older, however, he had problems with his circulation and his breathing became more labored. Then, at the age of 18, events presented another challenge. While he was being treated at Yale for injuries from an automobile accident, doctors diagnosed him with subacute bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the lining of the heart.

After assessing the teenager’s breathing difficulties and his medical history, the physicians recommended an updated tetralogy of Fallot repair. By 1960, interest in the Blalock-Taussig shunt had caused the procedure to evolve. Doctors from all over the world traveled to Johns Hopkins so that Alfred Blalock could show them how to perform the surgery. Indeed, from 1944 to 2006, over 2,000 Blalock-Taussig shunts were performed at Johns Hopkins by 28 surgeons on 1,880 patients from 35 countries (Annals of Thoracic Surgery 2007). Operative mortality was 14%, but most patients survived and many, like Edenburn, continue to live long lives.

“Before the repair my friends were always waiting for me to catch up to them,” Edenburn told Higgins. “After the surgery, I was waiting for them.”

Then he charged full steam into life. His entrepreneurial spirit led first to a startup office-cleaning venture and then, thanks to a talent for technology, his own computer business.

“I sold Dells,” he said. “It wasn’t work, I enjoyed it.”

Now, he also enjoys life in Cebu with his wife Epifania, whom he met in the Philippines and married in 1997. He eats mostly fish and avoids red meat, dairy and alcohol, except for an occasional glass of red wine. He has never smoked. His major activity is volunteering for the Gift of Life program, which provides surgery to children born with heart disorders like his. “So far, 140 lives saved,” he said.

He calls his own life a miracle and attributes his survival to Johns Hopkins, which prompted his reaching out to Kutty to arrange a visit.

“Do you know who Vivien Thomas is?” he asked the nurses and doctors he encountered along the hospital’s hallways. “How about Helen Taussig?”

Then he revealed, to their astonishment, who he is.

So, why the return visit now, almost 70 years later?

“I wanted to see the Christ statue, the portrait of Vivien Thomas,” Edenburn said. Then he looked down, borderline teary: “It’s really emotional for me. I wanted to know if anyone knew about me, if they heard about me along the line.”

They had — he had made connections, and Higgins, for one, wants to retain contact. After hearing about Edenburn’s Gift of Life efforts, he shared his own work as president of the Society for Thoracic Surgeons to reduce the mortality and morbidity of advanced heart disease in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

“Creating programs and training indigenous persons to provide care, that’s the ticket from my perspective,” said Higgins. “We need more charitable souls like you.”

Indeed, there’s always more to do, Edenburn agreed — and he continues to have the heart for it.

“How’s your heart today?” someone asked as he left.

He responded, “It’s great.”

Learn more about the history of heart surgery in the article, "The History of Heart Medicine at Johns Hopkins."