Paediatric heart surgeons are regularly hailed as miracle workers, making the tiniest hearts, missing the most essential parts, function — and for a lifetime. Tragedies as well as triumphs unfold in their theatres, giving surgeons opportunities to inscribe their names in the annals of cardiology.
Even though they have saved the lives of our children, however, we parents stop short of kneeling to kiss their hands. Not quite hagiographies, books with titles such as, Walk on Water about Dr Roger Mee of the Cleveland Clinic, and King of Hearts, about Dr. Walt Lillehei, the pioneer of open-heart surgery, herald monumental achievements. They also warn us not to idolise these super-hero surgeons who are, after all, only ordinary men and may at times be driven by impure motives or engage in ethically questionable behaviour. Lillehei was convicted of tax fraud, for instance. They are not necessarily saints.
But they could be.
In 2005 the Catholic Church began to investigate the sanctity of Mayo Clinic paediatric heart surgeon and researcher, Giancarlo Rastelli. Born in Pescara, Italy, in 1933, as a boy he attended the Classic Lyceum Romagnosi di Parma and later the University of Parma, where he was known to be a lover of mountain hiking and classical music. He went on to receive his surgical training at the university hospital.
In 1960, Rastelli won a NATO scholarship which began his relationship with Mayo — one of the most prestigious medical institutions in the United States. He quickly distinguished himself by his research, as well as his dedication to patients with the most defective hearts. He was the first to classify three anatomical types of atrioventricular (AV) canal, leading to better surgical management of AV defects. He also developed an innovative surgical approach to the treatment of transposition of the great arteries with pulmonary stenosis.
Now improved upon, the technique continues to carry his name, and has saved the lives of thousands of children born with a variety of very complex heart defects. This original work won his several awards, including two gold medals from the American Medical Association.
There is every reason to believe his innovations would have continued if his life had not been cut short at the age of 36. Despite all he had contributed to paediatric cardiology within a short span of time, Rastelli was only able to see what remained to be done. Near the end of his life when it would have been acceptable – due to his progressing illness – to slow down, he chose to continue. “To stop the research," he said, “is to cease to live.” By then it was clear to those who knew him that Rastelli was not only a great surgeon, but also a man of great virtue.
His colleagues remember him as optimistic, compassionate, and exceptionally devoted. The importance of his research and surgical innovation is universally undisputed nearly 40 years later. But what made Rastelli truly special is that his life was simply and strongly rooted in love of God. As a boy he was formed by the Jesuits of Parma where he learned that the essence of Christian's life is to serve his fellow man. And that is what he set about to do. Themes which define his life include humility, sacrifice, and compassion.
In some people, the virtues appear to flow seamlessly from inside out, from private spirituality to public service, and the testimonies about Rastelli demonstrate this to be true of him. That is not to suggest that this apparent seamlessness didn't cost him something. It is reported that it was very difficult for him when he could do nothing more to help a child, but he did not allow his own discomfort to keep him from drawing near the suffering one. He practiced true compassion; his advice was "Even if you only have a few minutes to visit a patient, enter, sit next to him, smile, take him by the hand, meet him as a brother with a common destiny."
Rastelli was concerned about being an authentic person, and not puffed up with pride over his remarkable achievements. When his colleagues could not understand his technical concepts, he considered it his own fault, not theirs. Humility, for him, was simply honesty, a rigorous accountability. According to his sister, his life could be distilled into one maxim: "Interrogate yourself every day and every hour and see how you match up against your degree, profession, essence, humanity, Christianity. Never live off past profits."
After an extended long-distance courtship, Rastelli married Anna Anghileri and they had one daughter who would herself become a physician. Sadly, his years as a married man and father were few. Shortly after their honeymoon, he diagnosed himself with Hodgkin's disease. Dr Igor Konstantinov marvels at Rastelli's disposition during this period of time: "Rastelli was certainly aware of this poor prognosis, yet he chose to get the most from the years left to him."
More importantly, he chose to give the most from the years left to him. They were his most productive and his most sacrificial. His colleagues had long been familiar with his extravagant devotion to his patients, some of whom he had housed, fed, and even helped to fund their surgeries and hospitalisations. As though co-conspirators in some wonderful pledge, he asked each of these children to sign their names on a poster kept hanging in his office, which read, "L'Amore Vince", or, "Love Always Wins".
In his final year, chronically sick and weak from Hodgkin's, Rastelli took under his care a "hopeless" case. Twelve-year-old Vincenzo Ferrante and his parents had travelled from Italy to Texas for an operation that was expected to finally repair his complicated heart defects. Instead they were dealt the terrible blow that surgery could no longer help their son. The desperate parents turned to Rastelli. The boy required two surgeries at Mayo, including the Rastelli procedure, within a period of weeks. Ferrante recovered slowly, while Rastelli's health rapidly declined. Yet there he was, at least on one occasion spending the night at the boy's bedside, and showing up for daily visits to cheer him during his long hospitalisation. Ferrante went on to university, eventually married and took on the profession of civil engineer. Rastelli died only weeks after Ferrante was discharged.
Anyone can recognise Giancarlo Rastelli as a surgeon of immense talent. His name has already been inscribed in the annals of cardiology. Time will tell if he will be recognised as a Catholic saint. There is no question that what his life shows is that Christian holiness enhances talent; it doesn't weaken it. I hope that his possible canonisation by the Catholic Church will inspire other doctors to follow in his footsteps.
Monica Rafie is a Chicago-area mother of four children, one born with complex heart defects, and the founder of an outreach to parents who have received a poor or difficult prenatal diagnosis.
* With thanks to Dr Igor Konstantinov and colleagues for for sharing, "A Tribute to Giancarlo Rastelli," Annals of Thoracic Surgery, May 2005; 79: 1819 – 1823.