Saturday, June 30, 2018


 While not  (yet) on the path to sainthood, a local well known doctor certainly fits the  profile of a  saint. He is very dear to our hearts as he saved the life of one of our sisters, who is no longer with us, but who had an extra ten years added to her life due to his intervention.

Pioneering heart surgeon LESTER SAUVAGE  was born in Wapato, across the mountains from us, near Yakima, in 1926.  His father was a sportsman who owned a  poolroom and bar called Jack’s Place. The two often went fishing together. Dr. Sauvage thought that some of his skill as a surgeon was because  of the many hours he spent cleaning fish with his father.

The family moved to Spokane in 1942 because his mother, a devout Catholic, thought the children could get a better education in the Catholic schools there.

His first career goal was to become a Major League baseball player. But his mother insisted that he focus on his education instead. He entered medical school in an accelerated pre-med program at Gonzaga in 1943, in the middle of World War II, at a time when medical schools were scrambling for students when he was just 17. 

In 1944 he left for medical school at St. Louis University in Missouri. It was an exciting time in medicine, on the eve of the era of open-heart surgery. Within a decade, a heart-lung machine would be developed, making it possible for the human heart to be stopped, repaired, and restarted. Advances in medicine were opening a whole new field of cardiovascular surgery. By his senior year in medical school, Lester decided to specialize in that field.

He completed a one-year internship at the King County Hospital (now Harborview Medical Center) in Seattle in 1949 and immediately began a residency in vascular surgery at the University of Washington. His residency was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army Medical Corps in 1952, during the Korean War. He was given the rank of lieutenant and assigned to the Division of Experimental Surgery in the Army Medical Service Graduate School at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C.

At Walter Reed, Sauvage became involved in research to find better ways to repair blood vessels that had been damaged by rifle fire or other war-related injuries. He conducted a series of experiments involving the insertion of blood vessel grafts in the aorta in the chest of young pigs. The work led to his first major research paper, "The Healing and Fate of Arterial Grafts," published in 1955.

In 1956 he married  a Seattle University nursing student. Within weeks, the young couple left for Boston, where Dr. Sauvage began a second residency, in pediatric and cardiovascular surgery, at the Children’s Medical CenterThe couple went on to have eight children.

In addition to a busy private practice (averaging more than 260 operations a year for 32 years), he also carried on important clinical research. With his colleagues at his initially small laboratory (now the Hope Heart Institute), he made major contributions to the development of coronary bypass surgery and artificial replacements for diseased arteries and valves.

By the 1970s, Dr. Sauvage was one of Seattle’s busiest and best-known surgeons. In addition to his private practice at Providence Hospital, he had become chief of cardiac surgery at Children’s Hospital. He was legendary for his stamina, working 20 hours a day for six and sometimes seven days a week. 

He was also known for his extraordinary attentiveness to patients. He visited them at all hours in the hospital and willingly provided personal services, from washing their hair to spoon-feeding them. On at least one occasion, he sent his assistants off to rest while he cleaned the operating room himself. Staff and patients called him "Saint Sauvage”.

 Dr. Sauvage retired from clinical surgery in 1991, after more than 32 years of practice, but he remained active in research and writing. He wrote three books for lay people: The Open HeartYou Can Beat Heart Disease, and The Better Life Diet.    His primary emphasis at the end of his career was on the prevention of heart disease. "We’re not going to defeat heart disease with a knife.  Prevention is where we should be, more than having more sharp knives and more operating rooms and more talented surgeons."

Dr. Lester Sauvage died on June 5, 2015, at the age of 88.

His deep Christian faith remained an important part of his life. As a surgeon, he often spoke to his patients about spiritual issues, and took pride in ministering to their inner lives as much as to their physical problems. "People who are afflicted with these problems are brought into a close glimpse, if you will, with eternity. If I can give a little guidance to people to enlarge their horizon or what they see, then I think I've done something that's every bit as important as putting a stitch in some artery someplace or another”. Our Community has fond memories of his care for our Mother Francis of Rome.

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