When receiving the news that Dr. Francis Fontan passed away earlier this week, Dr. Novick’s initial response was “Another giant in pediatric heart surgery passed from our midst.” Dr. Fontan is the individual who pioneered the development of the “Fontan” operation. The Fontan operation made it possible for those children born with one ventricle to have a chance to separate the “red” from the “blue” blood and lead nearly normal lives for many years. Dr Fontan’s contribution to the field of pediatric heart surgery cannot be over-emphasized as it is the final operation which nearly all children born with one ventricle receive thus providing them with a future free of the debilitating effects of chronic cyanosis.
Dr. Novick reminisced about meeting Dr. Fontan.
“As a resident in cardio-thoracic surgery at the University of Alabama from 1987-1991 I was fortunate to meet Dr. Fontan on more than one occasion because of his professional and personal relationships with Dr. John W. Kirklin and Albert D. Pacifico. I will never forget my first encounter with Dr. Fontan. He was visiting Birmingham to work on the finishing touches of his sentinel paper with Dr. Kirklin, “The Perfect Fontan”. On the day I had the honor of meeting him I was assigned by Dr. Pacifico to start the second case of the day. As would have it, by design I am sure, it was a child who needed a completion “Fontan.”
As usual this required a redo-sternotomy, which we performed without difficulty. When I sent word to Dr. Pacifico that the sternum was open, I received an unusual response, “Proceed”, which meant he wanted me to lyse the adhesions and place the cannulation sutures to enable the patient to be placed on bypass. I knew that Dr. Fontan was in the hospital and might be visiting the operating rooms, so I was a bit nervous. Nonetheless we proceeded without incident. When I sent word again to Dr. Pacifico that we were ready for him to cannulate and place the patient on bypass, I was again greeted with “Proceed.” This response was totally unexpected as I had never placed a “Fontan” completion patient on bypass, and I was early in my residency. So, as I was placing the arterial cannula, Dr Fontan suddenly appears above the anesthesia screen and says ‘Good morning Dr. Novick!’ Well as fate would have it, I muffed the cannulation and could not get the arterial cannula in. I stopped and responded ‘Good morning Dr. Fontan, sorry I muffed the cannulation, could you please ask Dr. Pacifico to come now.’ Francis laughed and apologized for spooking me at exactly the time I had tried to place the aortic cannula. Remembering this encounter with Dr. Fontan reminds me of the importance of having a sense of humor even while performing challenging heart surgery.”
Francis Fontan, creator of the Fontan operation, actually considered his greatest accomplishment the formation of the European Association of Cardio-thoracic Surgery. He is truly an innovative leader in pediatric cardiac surgery and one of the main individuals responsible for the progress of cardiac surgery in Europe. The world will miss Francis, but we can never forget his tremendous contributions to the field of cardiac surgery, specifically pediatric cardiac surgery. His legacy to this world can be found in the thousands of adults living with Fontan circulation today. We imagine that he and Dr. John Kirklin are together now, perhaps discussing “The Perfect Fontan.”