Boston Happenings

Lead Surgeon Who Saved Boston Marathon Bombing Officer Reflects on Long Career

On April 19, 2013, Frank Vittimberga, Chief of Vascular Surgery at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was suddenly drawn into the Boston Marathon bombing drama that gripped the area. MBTA Officer Richard Donohue was admitted to Mount Auburn, after being mortally shot in a gun battle with the marathon bombers in Watertown. Donohue had lost almost his entire blood volume from a right groin gunshot wound, and his heart had stopped. The emergency room physicians infused him with 23 units of blood and shocked his heart back to life, but he was still bleeding uncontrollably.

“I was called about 11:30 at night and told that this officer had been shot and was bleeding. My wife was telling me, don’t go, because they’re throwing bombs. I got here and he was still bleeding profusely,” Vittimberga said. Another surgeon had clamped off the major artery feeding the right leg, but blood was still leaking from the many small branches off of the main artery. “When I came in, I immediately said, get me all of the vascular clamps that you have. I started putting them on, everything that was bleeding, and stopped the bleeding within 15 minutes. He became very stable.”

Over the next eight hours, Vittimberga and his team of surgeons repaired the damage to the officer’s blood vessels and surrounding tissues. Officer Donohue went on to make a full recovery.

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Dr. Frank Vittimberga and Officer Richard Donohue

Vittimberga knew from junior high school in Watertown that he wanted to become a surgeon. “Whenever we saw an animal that was dead, we liked to cut it up and look at it,” he recalled. He made the firm decision to go into surgery while doing liver regeneration research on rats at Tufts Medical School. “The part which I enjoyed the most was sewing the up the rats….I found it to be a lot of fun and I’ve always found surgery to be fun.”

Vittimberga, has a 53-year connection with Mount Auburn. “I first stepped foot in this hospital in 1962 when I was an intern. I was here every year from 1962 right up through 1967 when I left for my fellowship.”

Vittimberga’s one-year surgical fellowship in Houston, Texas, was under the supervision of the renowned surgeons Denton Cooley and Michael Debakey. Cooley performed the world’s first implantation of a totally artificial heart. Debakey developed many technological innovations to surgical technique, including the roller pump, an essential component of the heart-lung machine. “Cooley and Debakey were the masters in that program,” said Vittimberga. “They were both dynamic and brilliant individuals who did a great deal for the field of surgery.”

After completing his fellowship, Vittimberga spent two years in the Air Force, including several assignments to Vietnam, which required advanced skills in trauma surgery. “I operated on about 600 people in two years in the Air Force. That was quite a training program.”

Vittimberga believes his Vietnam experience helps him handle traumatic injuries like those to Officer Donohue. “It was an interesting case, but I’ve seen a lot of people who were shot or going to die because of a ruptured one-thing-or-another.”

In 1970, Vittimberga returned home and joined the surgical practice of one of his surgical mentors, Dr. Isaac Mehrez at Mount Auburn, performing both general and vascular surgeries. “I enhanced his practice tremendously. I started doing an unbelievable number of vascular cases, and they came in from all over.” Forty-five years later, Vittimberga continues operating with the same practice.

Vittimberga commented on one of the major changes to surgical technique that he has observed. “The biggest change is minimally-invasive surgery, where the patient can go home within 24 hours of having a procedure.” Instead of large, open incisions, which require days of hospital recuperation, many surgeries are now performed using laparoscopic and endovascular techniques, with small incisions made to access the body parts requiring repair.

Vittimberga has always enjoyed being athletic and the outdoors: running, skiing, golfing, tennis, and sailing. Over the last year, he was forced to curtail some of his outdoor activities, after undergoing a coronary bypass operation and suffering several cracked ribs in a fall. But he is slowly resuming these beloved pastimes and still has a busy surgical schedule, although he is considering retiring from surgery in the next year or two.

Vittimberga recommends going into surgery to medical students, with some caveats. “In my business, you are absolutely straight out in everything you do all the time. I think if a person is not willing to put himself out to the limit and does not have an enjoyment or a skill at doing surgery, then they should not go into it. But, if you’re looking for a challenge almost every day, then I would recommend that you do it.”

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About James Bedsole

James is a Boston-based freelance journalist and medical professional. Raised in Memphis, TN, James moved to Massachusetts in the 1980's and never plans to leave.

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