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On Hand for Medical History

During his senior year of medical school, Victor F. Greco, M.D. ’47 (Inset, and far left) listens to a lecture by John Gibbon, M.D., who was discussing his research involving the heart and lung machine. After the first successful heart surgery, Dr. Greco recalls Dr. Gibbon wasn’t interested in publicity, noting that the surgery wasn’t mentioned in the press. Instead Dr. Gibbon was more concerned with sharing his experiences in surgical journals, better educating his medical colleagues. (Photo courtesy of Jefferson Medical College)

Alumnus Reflects on His Contribution to Open Heart Surgery Breakthrough

With more than half a century of hindsight, Victor F. Greco, M.D. ’47 says the solution seems simple – just basic physics. At the time however, it was the final hurdle in a major medical breakthrough.

Open heart surgery was the final frontier of medicine in the early 1950s. Doctors had performed procedures on the heart, but there was no proven method of supplying the body with oxygenated blood. Dr. Greco was helping to search for a solution.

Just 25 years old, he had worked for two years on a team of researchers, led by John Gibbon, M.D., which was developing a device called the heart and lung machine. This device would pump out blood, oxygenate it and then pump it back into the body during surgery.

After years of research, the team had perfected everything except the final step. When they closed the heart after surgery, patients would sometimes develop air embolization because air would collect in the heart. 

Dr. Greco broke down the problem from its most basic level to develop a remedy. “I thought, where does air go?” he says. “It rises to the highest level.” 

He suggested they stand the heart up when the patient is coming off the heart and lung machine. Once vertical, the air would rise to the top and they could puncture the heart with a trocar catheter to let it out. 

“It was as simple as that,” Dr. Greco recalls. “It was just a matter of someone thinking of it, trying it out and doing it.”

Dr. Greco had always been ahead of the curve. He graduated from high school at 15 years old and then The University of Scranton two years later. But even with his advanced career path, helping Dr. Gibbon’s team clear the final hurdle was a huge accomplishment for him. 

The first procedure came on May 6, 1953, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. The patient was an 18-year-old woman who had an atrial septal defect and had just weeks to live. During surgery Dr. Greco monitored the heart and lung machine – the speed, the amount of oxygen and keeping the blood flow equal going in and out. The surgery proved successful as the female patient went on to live 40 additional years.

After the surgery, Dr. Greco was offered several prestigious jobs, but his heart and his experience at Scranton inspired him to give back. He opened a private practice in his hometown of Hazleton, introducing new surgical methods to the region while raising the bar of medical care for the state. 

Dr. Greco says he still has people come up to him and thank him for the care he provided. “To me, that is worth more than anything else,” he says.

It’s this human touch that Dr. Greco’s son, Victor Greco, O.D. ’75, says made his father such an exceptional doctor.

“I remember him saying if you listen closely to a patient’s history and then to their symptoms, you should know the diagnosis. Then you run tests to confirm the diagnosis,” Dr. Greco Jr. says. “A lot of doctors today don’t take that approach.”

In addition to his private practice, the elder Dr. Greco, a recipient of the University’s O’Hara Award for medicine in 1997, has a long list of accolades, including a stint as deputy secretary of health for Pennsylvania. He worked as Muhammad Ali’s personal doctor, fixing a hand injury that threatened the champ’s career. He also found success in real estate investments and politics.

Today, Dr. Greco is 86 years old and still very active, occasionally teaching courses and giving lectures. “I can’t go a day without doing something,” he says. “I’m the type of person who has to stay busy.”  

Respected Among His Peers

During his distinguished career, Victor F. Greco, M.D. ’47 was the recipient of numerous accolades. He was a member of the advisory council to the director of the National Institutes of Health, vice chairman of the board of trustees of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, and a member of the State Board of Medicine appointed by then Governor Casey. Dr. Greco was also nominated to serve on President Clinton’s National Health Board. Most recently, he received UNICO’s prestigious Marconi Science Award for 2012.
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