In­no­va­tor in car­diac surgery

DR. LEVI WATKINS JR., 1944 - 2015

Los Angeles Times - - OBITUARIES - By An­drea K. McDaniels An­drea K. McDaniels writes for the Bal­ti­more Sun. Sun staff writ­ers Joe Bur­ris, Erin Cox and Pamela Wood con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., the first sur­geon to suc­cess­fully im­plant an au­to­matic de­fib­ril­la­tor in a hu­man and a civil rights ac­tivist who helped open the doors of Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity School of Medicine to mi­nor­ity stu­dents, has died at the age of 70.

Watkins died April 11 from a mas­sive heart attack and stroke, his rel­a­tives said.

“Levi was a son of the South who was birthed in the mid­dle of seg­re­ga­tion­ist Amer­ica and the mid­dle of a civil rights move­ment and be­came some­body who de­fied the lim­its of the ex­pec­ta­tions of him,” said for­mer Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who met Dr. Watkins in the 1980s on a picket line call­ing for bet­ter treat­ment of African Amer­i­cans in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

Watkins won ac­claim in 1980, when he im­planted a de­fib­ril­la­tor in a 57-year-old fe­male pa­tient, a pro­ce­dure that now is per­formed tens of thou­sands of times a year for pa­tients with life-threat­en­ing episodes of ven­tric­u­lar fib­ril­la­tion.

He be­came the first black chief res­i­dent of car­diac surgery at Johns Hop­kins.

“His con­tri­bu­tions to car­diac surgery will be leg­endary,” said Dr. Ben Car­son, a re­tired Johns Hop­kins neu­ro­sur­geon.

Watkins was born June 13, 1944, in Kansas, the third of six chil­dren, but grew up in Alabama, where he got a first­hand look at the civil rights move­ment.

There, at Dex­ter Av­enue Bap­tist Church in Mont­gomery, he met the church’s pas­tor — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When he grew older, Watkins be­came King’s driver, shut­tling the pas­tor around town.

Dis­heart­ened by the in­jus­tices he saw, Watkins threw him­self into the civil rights move­ment,

Watkins be­came the first African Amer­i­can to grad­u­ate from Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­sity in Nashville with a med­i­cal de­gree. It was an ex­pe­ri­ence he de­scribed over the years as iso­lat­ing and lonely.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Van­der­bilt, Watkins started a gen­eral surgery res­i­dency at Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal in 1971, where he be­came the first black chief res­i­dent of car­diac surgery. He left Bal­ti­more for two years to con­duct car­diac re­search at Har­vard Med­i­cal School be­fore re­turn­ing to Johns Hop­kins.

Watkins was con­sid­ered a pi­o­neer in open-heart sur­gi­cal tech­niques and made many im­prove­ments in the de­fib­ril­la­tor over the years, ac­cord­ing to the uni­ver­sity. In 1991, he be­came a pro­fes­sor of car­diac surgery and as­so­ciate dean of Hop­kins’ med­i­cal school. He re­tired in 2013.

“Levi was known far and wide for his pi­o­neer­ing sur­gi­cal work, his men­tor­ship to so many young peo­ple, his ad­vo­cacy for mi­nori­ties and his ser­vice as a role model,” Dr. Duke Cameron, car­diac sur­geon-in-charge at Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal and pro­fes­sor of surgery at the school of medicine, said in a state­ment.

“He prob­a­bly spoke at as many churches as he did at med­i­cal meet­ings,” Cameron said.

His con­tri­bu­tions to the med­i­cal school reached far be­yond his med­i­cal work. He was a mem­ber of the ad­mis­sions com­mit­tee and his re­cruit­ing ef­forts sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased mi­nor­ity en­roll­ment — a 400% up­swing in one four-year pe­riod. He also served as a men­tor and ad­vo­cate once the stu­dents ar­rived on cam­pus.

At Johns Hop­kins, Watkins quickly no­ticed that there were not a lot of other African Amer­i­cans on cam­pus, aside those who worked in the cafe­te­ria or other ser­vice jobs, his old­est sis­ter An­nie Marie Gar­raway said.

“He said from Day One he would do what he could to change that. Es­pe­cially be­cause so many of their pa­tients were from the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity,” she said.

“He never for­got the hum­ble roots where our grand­par­ents started and was very aware of the sac­ri­fices to get where he was,” Gar­raway said. “He never felt he was above speak­ing to the per­son who might have been thought to have the low­est-level job.”

Watkins be­came a per­sonal car­diac spe­cial­ist to poet Maya An­gelou, whom he hosted when she came to town for check­ups or speak­ing en­gage­ments. They had met in the mid-1970s in Alabama when both were vis­it­ing Coretta Scott King.

Mfume said Watkins was a quiet po­lit­i­cal fig­ure who would sup­port those of­fi­cials who were com­mit­ted to the idea of jus­tice.

“He stood up, and no one could sit him down,” Mfume said.

The Rev. A.C.D. Vaughn, se­nior pas­tor at Sharon Bap­tist Church in Bal­ti­more, said Watkins was “sym­bolic of real hope” for African Amer­i­cans.

“His life shows if you are will­ing to do the work, you could achieve what you wanted.”

In ad­di­tion to his sis­ter, he is sur­vived by broth­ers Don­ald V. Watkins Sr. and James Watkins, sis­ter Doris­tine L. Minott, and sev­eral nieces and neph­ews.

Jed Kirschbaum Bal­ti­more Sun

CIVIL RIGHTS AC­TIVIST Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. helped in­crease mi­nor­ity en­roll­ment at Johns Hop­kins Med­i­cal School and was once a driver for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.