Dr. Hassan Najafi led the 30-person team that, in 1968, performed Chicago’s first successful heart transplant.
Only a year earlier, Dr. Christiaan Barnard had made global headlines in Cape Town, South Africa, with the world’s first human heart transplant.
Dr. Najafi, who later operated on Chicago Bears owner Edward McCaskey after a 1986 heart attack, died May 20 at his home in Northfield. He was 86.
He owed his career as a heart surgeon in part to a game of ping pong. While in medical school in Iran in the 1950s, the Tehran native — a top-ranked table tennis competitor — was selected to visit the royal palace to play the game with the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, said his son Kevin.
Years later, when he was an intern at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., the shah came to his aid when he needed financial help to specialize in cardiac care, Dr. Najafi said in an interview after his groundbreaking heart-transplant operation.
He was first in his class of 242 students when he graduated from the Tehran School of Medicine in 1954, according to Rush University Medical Center.
In 1959, he joined what’s now Rush — then Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital — as a general surgery resident. He’d planned to be an orthopedic surgeon, but one of his primary mentors was Dr. Ormand C. Julian, who helped perform the first heart bypass surgery at Hines VA Hospital in the mid-1940s.
“He was the one who really persuaded Dad that should be his career,” Kevin Najafi said.
Dr. Najafi led the team who performed the 1968 heart transplant on Ervin Cramer, 50, a boilermaker from Stickney. He walked out of the hospital less than a month later. Initially, his recovery went well. But three months after the operation, his body rejected his new heart. Despite his heart failure, doctors felt the procedure showed transplants held promise for future cardiac patients.
For a quarter-century, from 1972 to 1997, Dr. Najafi served as chair of Rush’s Department of Cardiovascular-Thoracic Surgery. He was vice dean of Rush Medical College and an associate vice president of medical affairs from 1994 to 1997, according to the hospital.
At Rush, he met his future wife Marsha, who’d left her native Idaho to study nursing in Chicago. “My mom was the most beautiful woman my dad had ever seen,” their son said.
“As great a doctor as he was, he was foremost a family man,” the son said. “He always said, ‘I can’t wait to go to work in the morning — and I can’t wait to come home at night.’ ”
Elegant, poised and warm, Dr. Najafi inspired confidence in his patients and proteges, said Dr. Thomas Deutsch, an eye surgeon and provost at Rush University. Unlike some doctors and teachers, colleagues said he wasn’t threatened by young medical stars. They said that helped him recruit top talent.
“He was an exceptional person first and a surgeon second,” Deutsch said. “When I became a department chair, he sent me a handwritten note on a very elegant notecard. He had known my father and grandfather, who were both physicians. He wrote a really warm and inspiring note that went to the core of what it really means to be a physician — caring for patients and all people.”
The Najafis raised their four children in Northfield, where the doctor enjoyed gardening and planting trees in their multi-acre yard. “He was crazy about his yard and especially his trees,” his son said. “It was a wonderful way for him to relax his mind.”
In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Najafi is survived by daughters Susan Davidoff and Melinda Cooke; another son, Chris; and eight grandchildren. Visitation is planned from 10 a.m. until a service at noon Saturday at William H. Scott Funeral Home in Wilmette.