Remembering Dr. Joe Kiser, Our Founder

Dr. Kiser with a young patient in the 1970s


Published on April 20, 2019

It is with great sadness that we share the news of the death of Children’s HeartLink’s founder Joseph Kiser, M.D. Dr. Kiser, 86, died at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife Laura and his little dog “Fred Kiser” by his side.

Read Dr. Kiser’s obituary here and a feature story about him in the Star Tribune here. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial gifts be made to Children’s HeartLink.
Make a donation in Dr. Kiser’s memory

Dr. Kiser will be remembered as a dedicated heart surgeon who practiced for over 50 years. He will also be remembered as a remarkable and visionary man with a deep and abiding commitment to helping the less fortunate, the children with heart disease born in parts of the world where there was no one equipped to care for them.

“Joe Kiser believed that no matter what happened in the world, people will rally to help save the lives of children,” says Children’s HeartLink President Jackie Boucher. “Through his passion and commitment, he has saved so many children with heart disease and touched so many of our lives as a surgeon, as a mentor, as a leader, and as a friend. All of us that have worked alongside him for decades will continue to work together to live up to his legacy and his dream to increase access to care for children with heart disease around the world.”

When Dr. Kiser and his partner, Dr. Frank Johnson, started bringing Vietnamese children to Minnesota for heart surgery in 1969, they set in motion a movement that became an organization that is now a half-century old. During the 23 years that children were transported to Minnesota, 643 patients received treatment. Medical missions to underserved countries were set in place in 1993, and over the next 9 years, 814 children were treated. Through Dr. Kiser’s efforts, long-term relationships with medical schools in Algeria, Ethiopia, Honduras, Kenya and Korea were developed over the years, leading to the establishment of in-country open heart surgery programs. Under his leadership the organization also entered into relations with 10 additional countries with the intent of upgrading their health care capabilities. Dr. Kiser received numerous humanitarian awards from the governments of Vietnam, South Korea and Greece, and other entities and organizations.

“We lost one of the greats, one of the giants. Joe Kiser was a pioneer and an elite surgeon, and he was a human being extraordinaire,” says Dr. Joseph Dearani, Children’s HeartLink medical director and medical volunteer, and chair of the division of cardiovascular surgery at Mayo Clinic.

Although Children’s HeartLink’s approach has changed over the past 50 years, our commitment to helping kids with heart disease worldwide has never wavered. Dr. Kiser was an enthusiastic and tireless leader who continued to advise the organization until his health declined one month ago.

“The story of Children’s HeartLink or Children’s Heart Fund (our name until 1994) is the story of Joe Kiser,” says Tom Keller, who served on Children’s HeartLink’s board for 30 years and was a close friend of Dr. Kiser. “He provided the inspiration to others who might not otherwise have given their support to an organization that provided medical services to kids from other countries. Joe and other volunteers did the surgeries before there was any organization to support it financially. Finally, he formed a nonprofit organization. He was a great spirit; a thoroughly civilized man. He loved the arts, particularly poetry, painting and opera. He was widely read especially in history. Several times over the decades, people proposed naming the organization after him, but he declined.”

We will remember Dr. Kiser for his compassion, his curiosity and his lifelong love of learning. His legacy is the one million children with heart disease who were reached in the last 50 years thanks to his generosity, hard work, persistence and vision.