Being Headstrong Helps to Succeed as a Cardiac Surgeon

Lawyer:  Dr Cooley, do you consider yourself the best surgeon in the world?

Dr Cooley: Yes, I do.

Lawyer:  Don’t you think it is rather immodest?

Dr Cooley:  Perhaps, but remember, you put me under oath.

Dr Denton Cooley was considered by many to be probably the best surgeon in his time.

And he is from Texas.  Still alive.

I am very proud of the education I received in Poland.  One of my best teachers was Helena Libera. She taught ancient history and Latin.  She also taught us French after hours.  During the last year before graduation (there are no colleges in our system) we had to choose our path for future education.  Mrs. Libera had a long and very successful career as a teacher, and many of her pupils ended as prominent members of our community and beyond.

One of the school days was designed for discussion of medical career.

As a guest speaker, she asked Zbigniew Religa, who was a medical student, and just a few years older than us. Our medical school takes 6 years, to be followed by 2 years of internship.

Religa was very eloquent and described the medical school program with many appealing details.  Surely, his presentation made an impression on me and helped define my interests better.

However the biggest disappointment to our teacher came, when Religa told us, that knowledge of Latin is not necessary to further our medical studies.  This was her main motivating factor in urging us to study harder, her beloved subject. And frankly, it was the only reason this young medical student was invited to speak to us. The balloon had burst.

Dr Religa became one of the Polish best known cardiac surgeons.  He did the first cardiac transplant in that country in 1987. The surgery took 23 hours and this iconic picture was published by National Geographic.  It was taken by an anesthesiologist.  Please notice the assistant sleeping in the corner and the barely awake surgeon watching his patient after a marathon surgery. The operating room looks like a war zone.  The patient was still alive 25 years after surgery.


Dr Religa received the highest honors in the hierarchy of Polish cardiac surgery and medicine. He became a member of the Polish Senate and Minister of Health.  He was even thinking about running for the President of Poland.

He died of lung cancer at the age of 70. Religa was a lifetime smoker.

This is a tribute to his life compiled by his friends.  For extra credits.

Mrs. Libera was one of many memorable teachers I had an opportunity to meet on my path.  When you still remember the words they spoke to you, principles they lived by and details of their teaching, it had to be something special. Of course, there were teachers, who disseminated communist propaganda, but with age and with help from our homes we were able to sift it out.

There was another teacher of mine, who invited me to work for him here in the United States. A very well-educated man, an innovative cardiac surgeon.  One can speak with him about literature, music and art.  Consummated renaissance man. However when asked which books he reads, he said  “I don’t. If you write books, you don’t have to read them.”

Do you have to have a big ego to be a cardiac surgeon?

Well, sometimes it can be justified.

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