Paul Corso, a high-risk heart surgeon, dies at age 74


As Chief of Cardiac Surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Paul J. Corso sometimes had to close a patient's heart for repair. There would be no heartbeat.

He also had to shut his lungs. No breathing. He closed the brain. No brain waves.

"In 45 minutes of death," the Reader & # 39; s Digest wrote in 1978 an article on one of Dr. Corso's first surgeries, in which he temporarily put the brain, heart, and lungs of the brain. a patient at a stop, using a method called "deep hypothermia" for the patient's body temperature between 50 and 65 degrees. This would slow down his metabolism and his body's need for oxygen. Then, for a short time, the body would still be enough for the delicately delicate surgery to continue.

Dr. Corso, who retired from the Washington Hospital Center in 2018, died on June 10 at his home in McLean, Virginia. He was 74 years old. The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease called Lou Gehrig's disease, said his wife Karen Corso.

During a career spanning more than 40 years in the medical field, at the Washington Hospital Center and earlier at George Washington University Hospital, Dr. Corso was part of a group of second-generation cardiac surgeons who, after thousands of operations, would help to transform the procedure of deep hypothermia. from an innovative, ever-changing and high-risk medical scarcity to surgery that in 2000 had become almost routine.

"We want heart surgery to be a routine," said Dr. Corso to columnist Bob Levey of the Washington Post in 2001. "That's why the more we do it, the better. . . Cardiac surgery is like walking in a wood filled with bear traps; the first time you do it, you risk being trapped. You do it 20 times, you are less likely to be trapped. "

Dr. Paul J. Corso (Gary Landsman / Washington Hospital)

Dr. Corso was working in one of the major US media centers and it was inevitable to have reputable journalists among his patients. At least two of them have written stories about this experience.

Robert G. Kaiser, former editor of Post, was one. Kaiser underwent heart surgery in 2003. Her body temperature was brought down to 50 degrees and her heart, brain and lungs were closed.

In these conditions "in what sense are we alive?", He asked at a postoperative meeting with Dr. Corso.

"We know you have not died," the doctor told him. "We created this situation. The cells are kept alive. . . They simply do not make electrical noise. Once you warm up and get back to normal, the organs will start working again.

In fact it is exactly what happened. "My heart started beating again, pushed by the effect of warm blood on the heart's internal pacemaker," wrote Kaiser. long count for The Post's Sunday magazine.

Tad Szulc, a former New York Times foreign correspondent and freelance writer, was operated on by Dr. Corso's scalpel in 1999, and was invited to attend the same operation at another patient's home.

"I saw how much the heart was disconnected. . . for 45 minutes, completely drained of blood for "empty heart surgery" and replaced with a heart-lung device injecting oxygenated blood into the patient's body, "writes Szulc in Parade magazine in 1999.

"He had" good hands ", which translates into good surgery," said Dr. John M. Keshishian, former medical colleague. "Consider him among the best cardiac surgeons in the United States. . . one of the first to use deep hypothermia to stop the heart and perform the operation, then restart it. "

Paul Joseph Corso was born in Winchester, Virginia on September 14, 1944 and grew up in Charles Town, West Virginia, where his mother was director of nursing in a hospital. His father, emigrated from Sicily to the United States in 1920 at the age of 3 with his parents, became a railway engineer.

At the age of 16, with the encouragement and help of his mother, Dr. Corso attended his first surgery: removing his own appendix. Anesthetized under the waist, he saw everything in mirrors strategically placed above the operating table.

In high school, he was a follower of his class and, in 1965, graduated from George Washington University after three years. He graduated from GWU Medical School in 1969, followed by training in surgical and cardiothoracic surgery at GWU and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

In 1967, he married Karen Johnston, his only immediate survivor.

In an interview shortly before his death, Dr. Corso said he chose heart surgery "because it was intellectually difficult." A few years earlier, he told Levey that cardiac surgeons were "aggressive, intelligent, motivated, mentally, emotionally and physically enduring." We are born with all these factors, but we must develop them in their highest form. Some people say that cardiac surgeons are jerks, and we probably are too.

Heart surgery has always been Dr. Corso's specialty, but heart, lung and brain arrest has also been used in other procedures.

In 1977, he participated in a 19-hour operation with a neurosurgeon at GWU Hospital to suppress the crippling and potentially fatal growth of a tangled mass of blood vessels at the base of a patient's brain.

To allow the surgeon to remove the lethal mass, Dr. Corso closed the heart, lungs, and brain, and cooled the patient's blood to 65 degrees. It was "about the same temperature that President Carter wants you to keep your room," joked Dr. Corso in the newspaper, citing President Carter's fuel shortage crisis.

In 1981, Dr. Corso was part of a team of surgeons at the Washington Hospital Center, who had removed an explosive bullet from the neck of a wounded policeman during the assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan.

The FBI laboratory informed the hospital that the bullet lodged in the officer's neck could explode at any moment. "It was the job of the surgeons to remove it without detonating the patient, themselves and the surgical staff," according to a career summary prepared by Dr. Corso and his family.

To find the exact location of the bullet without searching – and possibly exploding – they installed a metal detector with the help of a wire and radio at transistor. The bullet was successfully fired and fired by a secret service agent in a safe place.

Far from his job, he loved "fast cars, old wine" and skiing from the peaks of the mountains, said his friend John Keshishian.

Dr. Corso retired by observing that "surgeons and baseball players should leave the field before being solicited".


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