PHILADELPHIA (AP) - For 26 minutes, Cecelia Bavolek's heart and lungs lay still and the blood drained from her body as she quietly made medical history 50 years ago.
On May 6, 1953, the 18-year-old from Wilkes-Barre became the first person to undergo a successful surgery while hooked up to a heart-lung machine - a device that can circulate a patient's blood and infuse it with life-giving oxygen while the heart is stopped for repairs.
Cardiology hasn't been the same since.
"It opened up an entire new era of medicine," said Herbert E. Cohn, vice chairman of surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where the operation took place.
"Before the heart-lung machine, coronary artery bypass surgery did not exist," Cohn said. "Now, it is one of the most common operations done in this country."
The legacy of the heart-lung machine's creator, the late Dr. John H. Gibbon Jr., was celebrated at a symposium a week before the milestone. Gibbon's invention, the fruit of 20 years of research, collaboration and tinkering in his lab at Thomas Jefferson Medical College, solved what had been one of medicine's paradoxes.
To fix a defect in someone's heart, surgeons needed to stop it from beating. But if the heart stopped for more than a few minutes, the patient died.
The heart-lung machine, also called a pump oxygenator, resolves this by doing the heart's work for it.
During her landmark operation, Bavolek was hooked up to the pump oxygenator for 45 minutes while Gibbon repaired a defect on her heart. For 26 of those minutes, the machine performed all the functions normally done by her heart and lungs, allowing Gibbon to stop her heart, then restart it when his work was complete.
Bavolek's heart is still pumping today. She declined to be interviewed for this story, but heart specialists said she recovered fully from the operation.
Gibbon died in 1973. His original heart-lung machine is gone, replaced by modern versions that take advantage of space-age materials and miniaturized parts.
He first began working on designs for his machine in the early 1930s, and by 1933 had constructed a prototype that briefly kept a cat alive in a laboratory, said Cohn, who worked in Gibbon's lab as a medical student.
Gibbon's work was interrupted by World War II, but a series of advances by other physician-inventors in the design of pumps and devices that could transfer oxygen to blood, and a fruitful collaboration with IBM helped pave the way for the successful 1953 machine.
The final product, sealed in a large metal box, had its drawbacks. Many of the devices installed for monitoring the levels of oxygen and acidity in the blood didn't work, Cohn said.
The screen used to put oxygen in the blood was as big as a car radiator, compared to modern versions that are the size of a coffee can.
But today's heart-lung machines operate on the same principals, although with much better parts, said Dr. Charles Bridges, chief of cardiac surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital.
"There are over half a million operations a year performed in the United States using the heart lung machine," he said. "How many lives saved? We can't even count them."
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