“When I got up every day I couldn’t wait to get to work. There were children waiting to have their heart repaired.”
Dennis Mills with his lifelong work partner and friend Dr. Joe Kiser
For his entire career, cardiac surgeon and Children’s HeartLink founder Dr. Joe Kiser relied on a close work partner and friend both inside and outside the operating room. That person was Dennis Mills, who operated the heart-lung machine.
Dennis worked as a perfusionist for 45 years, one of the trailblazers in this new and growing field. This position is vital to open heart surgery and a position of enormous trust, yet not many people outside a hospital setting know this profession by name. The perfusionist keeps the patient alive during heart surgery by operating the heart-lung machine that takes over the function of the patient’s heart and lungs while the surgeon operates.
This machine was a new invention when Dr. Kiser was starting out in the field. Dr. Kiser identified Dennis as talented and trustworthy early on, securing him his first opportunities at Northwestern Hospital and Metropolitan Medical Center in Minneapolis and later urging him to get a pilot’s license so Dennis could fly him around the region to promote a new heart surgery center to doctors and hospitals in the Upper Midwest.
Learning from the best
Dennis was present during surgeries for the first children brought to Minneapolis from Vietnam in 1969. “I was 25 years old at the time and had limited experience,” he says, “but no one at that time had much experience with the heart-lung machine.”
In the late 1960s, heart surgery was still in its infancy. Dennis had his first exposure to this new field when he was in the Navy, stationed at a big naval hospital in San Diego. “Right from the start I was pretty enamored with this heart surgery business and the machinery it required,” he says. His original plan was to return to Minnesota to go to dental school, but when Dennis returned to his home state, he got a job at a research foundation called Minneapolis Medical Research, where he received more training on the heart-lung machine.
“’Learn from the best’ was Joe Kiser’s motto,” says Dennis. “Joe was trained by John Kirkland at Mayo, and Joe felt that what Mayo did was always the best anywhere. He sent me to work with the Mayo Clinic to see how they did things. Then when Kirkland left for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I went down there to spend some time with that group as part of my training, too. Joe gave me every opportunity to grow professionally.”
Sharing their expertise far and wide
Dr. Kiser specialized in a procedure to correct Tetralogy of Fallot, a complex heart defect in children. “His record of success with that operation was as high as anyone in the country at that time,” says Dennis. “It was a difficult operation, and not many people had repaired many kids with that complex heart defect. We would go to medical meetings around the country, and we had an exhibit and video, and we talked about repairing children’s hearts.”
Dennis went on many trips with Dr. Kiser for Children’s Heart Fund (later called Children’s HeartLink), to countries in Central America, Africa and South America, to assist fledgling heart programs. And before that he assisted with nearly 500 surgeries on children from around the world who were flown to Minneapolis for surgery.
“We began to realize that doing one operation or two or three in a week here in Minneapolis was just putting a band-aid on a problem,” says Dennis, who fully supported Children’s HeartLink’s change in program model when the organization began focusing on on training in-country providers.
“I realize that I was lucky in my career. My work was gratifying and exciting and rewarding,” says Dennis. “When I got up every day I couldn’t wait to get to work. There were children waiting to have their hearts repaired.”
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