Tom Keller: Children’s HeartLink is Particularly Close to My Heart

Tom Keller (on the right) and board members in the 1970s


Throughout our 50-year history, Children’s HeartLink has had a number of dedicated friends who supported our work. Tom Keller, a retired attorney from Minneapolis, has been “one of the closest long-term friends the organization has had since its inception,” according to Children’s HeartLink founder Joe Kiser, M.D., recently deceased.  With characteristic understatement, Keller says: “I just tagged along.”

In fact, Tom Keller has been an active supporter of Children’s HeartLink for decades. He organized our program as a nonprofit corporation in the 1970s, served on the board for 30 years and served twice as board chair, bringing numerous advocates for children with heart disease to Children’s HeartLink.

Keller served on the boards for several nonprofits over the years but says that Children’s HeartLink “is particularly close to my heart.”

Introduced by a Persian poet 

The friendship between heart surgeon Joe Kiser and lawyer Tom Keller began with a mutual love of poetry. “I met Joe Kiser at a Christmas open house hosted by a friend 50 years ago. I was sitting at the table eating and talking with somebody, and all of a sudden someone interrupted. It was Joe Kiser who asked, ‘What’s that quotation from?’ I had no idea what he was talking about. And he said, ‘Well, you’ve just used a famous quote. It was something about cash.’ And yes, I had said ‘take the cash, and let the credit go.’  It turned out that I had just stumbled on the heart surgeon Joe Kiser, who loves poetry and reads it every day.”

The quote from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the English translation of the 11th-century Persian poet, marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between two passionate people who shared a passion for helping children with heart disease.

One of its passages has special meaning now, Keller says.

“‘For some we loved, the loveliest and the best, That from his Vintage rolling Time hath pressed,'” Keller recites. “Joe Kiser was among ‘the loveliest and the best.'”

Keeping the program going

In the early days there was no name for this program that brought kids from Vietnam to Minneapolis for heart surgeries. Simply sustaining the program was a challenge. The doctors wrote personal checks to support the program, but it was not enough.

Young Vietnamese patients in Minnesota in the 1970s


“Scrub nurses used to watch operating rooms at the general hospital, and when they were unoccupied, say on Wednesday at 7:00 am, they sneaked a kid in there who was not registered at the hospital to do a surgery,” says Keller. This was a different era, when regulations were far looser.

To raise money for these foreign-born children, Tom Keller organized the program as a nonprofit corporation so that people could donate charitable dollars to support the work.

“The story of Children’s HeartLink or Children’s Heart Fund [our name until 1994] is the story of Joe 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,” says Keller.

Great spirit

Keller explained that one of the issues they faced early on when approaching medical companies was criticism that Children’s HeartLink served a population of kids from other countries but not from the US. “There was a good answer for that. Kids in this country who needed heart surgery probably got it,” says Keller. He added that when medical missions to developing countries began in the 1990s, Children’s HeartLink also faced other challenges in the countries we worked: local politicians who wanted to take full credit, corruption, rivalry and many other challenges. Despite all of these challenges, in the 9 years the organization operated medical missions, more than 800 children were treated. “Joe was a great spirit; a thoroughly civilized man. Several times over the decades, people proposed naming the organization after him, but he declined,” says Keller.

Keller and Kiser also shared a sense of humor and long-running jokes. “We very much enjoyed each other’s company. As a matter of fact, I’m sure that long ago Joe decided we were two of the funniest collaborative guys anywhere.” Their strong collaboration was key to helping thousands of children get the care they needed.

Children’s HeartLink has refined its programs and approach over the years, but our commitment to helping children with heart disease worldwide has remained the same. Today we mentor and train in-country medical specialists at 16 partner hospitals in Brazil, China, India, Malaysia and Vietnam. Last year alone, our partner hospitals served over 135,000 children.

Share your story on our 50 Years Blog! If you were a host family or if you have a Children’s HeartLink story or photos, please contact us: hello@childrensheartlink.org.

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