Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at

OK, I don’t know how it was where you are, but this Valentine’s Day last week was extra heart-filled in my world. There were a lot, and I mean a lot, of hearts. There were pink hearts, red hearts, doily hearts. There were paper hearts, candy hearts, chocolate hearts. One of my favorites was a Valentine’s Day T-shirt I saw that depicted a medical illustration of an anatomically correct heart; that sort of science-nerd irony always brings me joy.

It also made me think a bit because hearts, the anatomical kind, have been a topic of discussion in our home this past year, ever since my octogenarian father-in-law went in for a surprise triple bypass.

I say “surprise” because he is one of the healthiest guys I know. He is trim and fit, walks every day, stays active, does his daily exercises, and (not counting the slightly shocking amount of ice cream) eats healthy foods. If you saw him you would never guess his age, let alone worry about his heart health.

And yet. A trip to the doctor revealed some truly alarming blockages. Once the phrase “widow maker” gets used, you pay attention. Lucky for all of us, modern medicine is fairly astounding and he came through his open heart surgery with flying colors. His hospital stay was shorter than I ever could have imagined possible for such an invasive procedure and he is recovering really beautifully.

I am so thankful for this. I’m thankful to his doctors who caught it, to the surgeon who did such a beautiful job, to the nurses who helped him get back on his feet – and to Daniel Hale Williams, the cardiologist who, way back in 1893, performed the first open-heart surgery on a human.

You guys, 1893 is only 12 short years after New York City dazzled the world with its fancy new lights that ran on electricity. Unreal. What’s more, as noted by Jackson State University, “the operation was done without X-rays, antibiotics, surgical prep work, or tools of modern surgery.” Yet it was wildly successful. That first patient lived another 20 years.


The beautiful synergy of basking in my father-in-law’s recovery right now during Black History Month is that, in addition to Williams being the first person to do it, he was also the first Black cardiologist.

Born in 1856, before the Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation, Williams became a doctor at a time when such a thing was almost unthinkable – and rarely done. The American Medical Association refused to admit people of color to their membership, so he co-founded the National Medical Association instead.

Racism and prejudice barred him from working in hospitals, so he founded his own.

Now known as Provident Hospital of Cook County in Chicago, it became the first hospital to have interracial medical staff, and it earned a stellar reputation for its care of patients, a grouping which was interracial as well.

Williams had not been born into great wealth or opportunity, but he was born with a keen intellect and what seems to me like an unquenchable determination to create a meaningful life for himself. When doors were closed in his face, he went and built new spaces that were welcoming to all.

I am awed (and humbled) by the life of Williams. I am deeply indebted as well. I like my father-in-law. Thanks to Williams’ work, I get to keep him around a while longer. What a remarkable man.

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