PAUL GESSELL November 23 1987


PAUL GESSELL November 23 1987


Dr. Wilbert Keon entered the operating room unobtrusively. The diminutive surgeon with delicate-looking hands approached the table where an anesthetized patient lay, his chest cut open to expose a beating heart. A team of doctors, nurses and technicians stood by, their trays of sterilized instruments and battery of electronic gadgetry at the ready. After exchanging a few words and brief glances, Keon and his team set to work on the four-hour bypass operation. It was a success, but later in his office,

Keon, the 52-year-old director general of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute at the Ottawa Civic Hospital, was reflective. He said that he is still excited each time he saves or prolongs a life. But occasionally the operations fail. “If things don’t work out,” he said, “it is truly devastating sometimes.”

Balance: Keon—known to

his friends as Willie—and his team have made the heart institute a world-renowned centre for transplants and other cardiovascular operations.

Keon performs almost a quarter of the institute’s yearly 1,200 heart operations, including two dozen transplants. Involved in life-and-death decisions almost daily, he is one of the nine-member transplant team that must decide who will receive a transplant and whether the procedure will prolong life—or merely prolong pain.

Said Keon: “One must always balance a human being’s right to live against his right to die with dignity.”

Keon says that he does not see transplants as a key to immortality. Still, he added that he has little patience with critics of the practice who say that money spent on organ transplants robs funds from other procedures and from medical research. A heart transplant costs roughly $25,000, but Keon noted that the longterm hospitalization for a person with a diseased heart can be even costlier. And besides, he said, no one has the right to “start placing price tags on human life.”

The youngest of 13 children, Keon spent his boyhood in the tiny Ottawa

Valley community of Chapeau, Que., 130 km northwest of Ottawa. As a child, he dreamed of starring in the National Hockey League. But he was deterred by a slight frame and by his mother, Loretta, who was determined that all her children would receive a

good education. Keon says that he was inspired to become a physician by the example of the compassionate, oldstyle country doctors he met as a teenager. Among them was his older brother, Harold. Recalling those role models, Keon said, “There was a very uplifting kind of life to look forward to and a tremendous opportunity to make your life worthwhile.”

Fame: Now Keon is ranked among Canada’s top surgeons. Said William Brady, president of Transplant International (Canada), a London, Ont.-

based volunteer organization promoting organ donations: “He is a pioneer in every sense, the consummate surgeon.” But even as a medical student at the University of Ottawa in the late 1950s, Keon stood out. After earning five degrees, Keon returned to the university in 1969 as an associate professor in the surgery department. Three years later he gained fame by perfecting a lifesaving emergency bypass operation that restores blood supply to dying heart muscles. But one of the highlights of Keon’s career came in May, 1986, when he conducted the first temporary installation of an artificial heart in Canada.

Surgical, administrative, research and teaching duties prevent Keon from spending as much time with his family or engaging in such favorite pastimes as watching football games or reading history books as he would like. The silver 1987 Jaguar that he drives between the city and his country home at Dunrobin, 25 km west of Ottawa, is the only material indulgence to which he will admit. As a boy he was fascinated by cars and promised himself he would one day own a Jaguar.

Passions: But the walls of his office testify to his two real passions—his family and his work. There are photographs of his three children, charting their growth from toddlers to teenagers, and of his wife, Anne, 49, who helped finance his studies by teaching school. And there are facsimiles of hearts and heart parts everywhere. Pigs’ heart valves are encased in plastic blocks to use as paperweights. Quilted red

valentine hearts are piled on the couch where he naps.

Keon said that he specialized in cardiac medicine because he anticipated medical breakthroughs that would save the lives of many young people dying from heart disease. Said Keon: “It just seemed to be a matter of time—and it has come to pass.” Through his pioneering work on transplants, Keon himself can take some of the credit for those developments.