TulsaPeople Q&A: Dr. Hisashi Nikaidoh
A pediatric cardiac surgeon with a big heart
Dr. Hisashi Nikaidoh is writing a book about loss — a topic gleaned from his own personal experience and the experiences of other parents whose children have died.
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The medical community has no shortage of hyper-intelligent healers, but even among the extremely smart and the extremely talented, Dr. Hisashi Nikaidoh is in a league of his own.
A world-renowned pediatric cardiac surgeon, Nikaidoh, 77, is the medical director and chief of pediatric cardiovascular surgery at the Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis. Born in Tokyo, Nikaidoh is a legend among his fellow surgeons for pioneering what has come to be known as “the Nikaidoh Procedure.” First performed in 1983, this surgery has gained worldwide acceptance for the treatment of patients with specific congenital heart defects.
See Dr. Nikaidoh share an overview of the procedure he developed:
Reflective and soft-spoken, Nikaidoh is a devout Christian who can often be seen praying with his patients before surgery.
What prompted you to go into medicine?
My father was a physician, an obstetrician. I became a physician probably because of watching my father, and realizing what he could do.
During the Second World War my father had his own little clinic in Japan, which was burned down about four months before the end of the war. My father was drafted at the age of 40-something, and as he was waiting for a ship to take him to Manchuria, the war ended. So, my father came home, but he had nothing. No clinic, no instruments, no medications.
Japan was at the bottom economically. We barely had enough to eat. But people came to see my father because they knew he was a physician, and the only one for miles around. And, in a limited way, he practiced medicine the best he could.
As I watched this, I saw there was a noble purpose in this profession. So, I decided to become a physician. I’m writing a book, and in one of the chapters I talk about that.
Is the book an autobiography?
Not really. This is a totally different kind of book. It is about loss of family members and recovering from that loss.
I have watched many parents lose their children in the hospital, sometimes related, at least chronologically, to a surgery I had performed. It is a painful thing to watch. And as much as I sympathized with them, I really did not know how they felt. But in the summer of 2003 I lost my own son in a tragic way, and he was the only physician among my five children. That was pretty rough. He was 35.
So, I started thinking about these mothers I have seen who have recovered from loss. Everybody’s experience is a little different. I thought this was worthwhile to put into a book.
Does it have a working title?
The working title is “Healing Hearts.” It is written by a heart surgeon, so it has more than one meaning.
One thing that we all have to recognize, but also embrace, is the reality that when you are born, you will someday die. Dying is not a failure or a shame. It is not dirty or something to be embarrassed about. Each life, no matter how short or how long, has its own remarkable value, and it is important for the people either directly involved in the loss or for everybody else. We should look back and see what that means, and once we focus on that, we can come out with a far better future for ourselves. Whoever is left behind can do better. At the end you will come to the realization that it is all God’s grace and plan, and that is where the final conclusion comes.
Spirituality is obviously important to you. Does that make you unique among your medical colleagues?
I became a Christian when I was 48, so I functioned as a surgeon and physician for many years without faith. And my book tells some part of my life as it was. I was a struggling, good man. I wanted to be good. I wanted to do good work. I wanted to be as perfect as I could be. I strived and struggled, and was pretty badly beaten.
We dream that every patient will get better, there won’t be any more complications in surgery, and they will all go home well, with the least amount of pain and the shortest hospitalization. But we can just keep dreaming. I don’t have control.
Did spirituality help move you closer to your medical goals?
I never looked at it that way. I became a believer not because I wanted to be better. Now that I am a Christian, I am a happy sinner. As I became a believer, did I become a better person? No. I am just as sinful, just as inadequate, just as broken. But I no longer blame myself or beat up on myself.
What brought you to pediatrics?
It was a meandering way, and not for any good or altruistic reason. I became a surgeon because I am impatient. I cannot sit and wait for my patient to get better with medicine. I wanted to do something to bring about immediate success.
As I was going through general surgery training, I operated on a 75-year-old with colon cancer. Three months later that patient died from a heart attack, and I was so disappointed. I was tired of trying to cut out diseases, and then the patients die anyway. I changed course to work on people with a longer life expectancy, so I decided to become a pediatric surgeon.
Pediatric surgery in the 1960s was still in its infancy, and a lot of people were fascinated, as I was. Still later I got bored with too much routine, so I was looking for something more exciting, which led me to pediatric heart surgery. So, they were all the wrong reasons. Nothing noble, I’m afraid.