Heart surgeonEllsworth Wareham

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Born in Texas and raised in Alberta, Canada, Wareham was one of six children, and they all went into some aspect of medicine: three brothers became dentists, two sisters became nurses. And himself? “You know how people will say they had ‘their call’ to something? I felt that I was actually called to be a doctor,” he would often say. “There had never been any question in my mind about this.” During World War II, he was a physician on a U.S. Navy hospital ship near the Philippines. When the ship’s captain was injured, Wareham recommended immediate surgery, but surgeons disagreed …and the captain died. He decided to become a surgeon himself. His specialty: cardiothoracic surgery — one of the first in the world; he performed the first open-heart surgery at the Loma Linda University Medical Center, which is now renowned for its cardiac surgery.

Dr. Ellsworth Wareham (Photo: Loma Linda University)

Perhaps because he had worked overseas in the military, Wareham continued to go overseas: he performed the first open heart surgery in Pakistan in the early 1960s as the head of a goodwill mission sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. In April 1975, when South Vietnam was clearly going to fall, Wareham was there — and sent his team home for safety while he stayed behind to do post-operative care on his patients. He escaped a few days before Saigon was evacuated of Americans. And he made sure such work would continue. With Dr. C. Joan Coggin, Wareham co-founded the Loma Linda University Overseas Heart Surgery Team, which helped high-risk patients in Pakistan, India, Thailand, Taiwan, Greece, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Kenya, Zimbabwe, China, Chile, North Korea, and Nepal. Coggin noted Wareham “was very calm, all the time, and sometimes surgeons, under pressure, will sort of [display emotion],” she said. “I never saw him, ever, get riled about anything” — he just got the job done. And Wareham is well known for his longevity: he didn’t retire from his position as Loma Linda’s Chief of Cardiothoracic surgery until he was 77.

Wareham mowing his lawn — on his 100th birthday. (Photo: Loma Linda University)

“I think that if you’re old, you should keep away from old people. And keep with young people,” he said …when he was 94. Another tip is to have meaningful work. Without a job that he loved, he said, “I doubt if my health would be as good as it is now.” After retiring from Loma Linda, Wareham continued to train and assist other surgeons during operations until he was 95. The result: “I’m not only alive, but I feel good. I’m not taking any medications.” He always passed the elevator to climb the stairs instead. But mostly, he attributed his good health to clean eating; he was a vegetarian for the last 50 years of his life. When his grandson, Jason, was commissioned into the U.S. Marines, Wareham pinned on his second lieutenant bars. “He wore his naval uniform from World War II,” Jason said. “And of course it still fit.” Dr. Wareham died — at home — on December 15. He was 104.

From This is True for 16 December 2018