Born in Argentina to a poor family and having little interest in school, Prof.
Bernardo Vidne’s becoming a world-famous Israeli heart surgeon who performed
more than 40,000 operations (a quarter on children) in 35 years is close to
miraculous. The recently retired director of cardiothoracic surgery at the Rabin
Medical Center-Beilinson Campus and Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah
Tikva, who recently turned 70, recalls his amazing and charmed life in a new
The 188-page, Hebrew-language, NIS 78 hard-cover book,
titled Gilui Lev (which could be translated as open heart), was written with
help from Yaffa Shir-Raz and released by Focus Publishing (www.focus.co.il). It
offers physicians a lesson in devotion, professionalism, persistence and modesty
and inspiration to the rest of us.
“This tale is almost a Cinderella
story,” writes Shir-Raz in her introduction. “But in his case, the magic
that touched him was not that of a fairy. It was his own hand, a hand to
numerous patients owe their lives.”
Vidne begins by calling December 31,
2006 a turning point in his life that began like any other day. After
two routine operations until 10 p.m., he thanked the staff and exited to
to one patient’s family. Without warning, he felt and looked unwell. His
colleagues asked if he wanted to sit down. He soon found himself on a
in an ambulance, being rushed for a CT scan of his brain to determine
had suffered a stroke. He had.
Fortunately, it was the ischemic type with
a blood clot blocking blood and oxygen from part of his brain and not a
hemorrhage, which can be even harder to treat and more deadly. As
catheterization of the brain to scoop out the clot was relatively new
there were only a handful of experts able to do it, Vidne was taken to
Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital (now Sourasky Medical Center), where
Dr. Shimon Maimon was called in to do the minimally invasive surgery.
within a few hours of the initial symptoms, it was successful, and
month, Vidne was back operating on his own patients.
“How ironic life can
be,” Vidne recalled. “I found myself lying on the catheterization
table... In a
moment, the tables were turned.
Instead of looking down at the patient,
suddenly I was the patient looking up at the doctors.”
As Vidne regained
consciousness in the intensive care unit, then-director-general of
Prof. Dan Oppenheim, gave him a thin cord. “Take it. Make a knot,” he
to see if the surgeon’s brain function was unharmed. Vidne obeyed and
Two days later, he shaved himself. “I am always very pedantic
about that, because just the shave and freshening up are part of
When I see a patient after surgery looking neglected and
stubbled, I send him immediately to shave,” he declared.
this event created a very big change in the way I looked at life and
around me,” writes Vidne. “The...
warmth that surrounded me from the
moment I collapsed surprised me greatly, touched my heart and without
saved me. I didn’t expect such immense caring from people with whom my
connection was work. While previously, I had not made emotional contact
most people around me, afterward I started to take interest in them.
cared about these people. I had personally experienced how thin the line
life and death – a border that I had known so well from a different
quickly one can move from a condition of full control to one of complete
control, from one who dictates treatment to the patient to being a
patient in others’ hands.”
Vidne confesses that before his stroke, due to
lack of time or motivation, he was often curt with patients and
changed after his own brush with death. He said he learned that “as
in the hierarchy and become professors and department heads, they
themselves from the simple person inside them. I admit that for many
too made that mistake. I didn’t do this with evil intentions, but
I am sorry that I didn’t devote my energies to this important connection
the man and the doctor that I am.
After all, to be a man and help other
people is the first mission of everyone who studies medicine. It doesn’t
how far you reach; try always to preserve the connection between the
the person that you are,” Vidne advises readers.
“Good as they are,
doctors don’t know everything,” he advises patients. “Don’t regard their
recommendations as set in stone, and it’s worthwhile always to seek a
opinion, not because he knows more or to make sure that the first
correct, but to examine the disease from another angle – which the
knowledge and experience granted him. Always try to obtain information,
the same time, believe that your doctor aims to do his best for you. He
always succeed, but I have no doubt that he wants this with all his
Retelling his life story, Vidne says that as a child he never
dreamed of being a heart surgeon, at least consciously. Only much later
understand how important one’s studies are. He never liked to learn, and
graduated from high school, he didn’t dream of continuing for higher
“The first time I thought I must study and almost
simultaneously to be a doctor was in the middle of a lunch in a wine
in Concordia,” Vidne recalls.
He was there to earn some money, after his
parents’ modest home burned down when a kerosene stove was left lit. No
survived, forcing him to move in with his grandparents, while his three
lived with uncles. Despite their poverty, his parents hired a private
he could skip a grade of school.
As an enthusiastic Zionist, he decided
to join a Jewish youth movement at 12 and later was sent to Israel for a
a potential leader. “For me, it was like reaching the moon,” he writes,
had unforgettable experiences and upon his return to Argentina, decided
up local Zionist youth activities. To survive, he found work in the wine
warehouse, loaded a truck and distributed heavy crates to restaurants
One day, the truck driver told him: “Bernardo, because I didn’t
study, I am forced to distribute wine and drag heavy crates like a
donkey all my
Hearing that one sentence changed his life.
then and there to study.
Returning home, he told his parents he was doing
to medical school at the University of Cordoba; they were overjoyed.
decades later, a well-known surgeon, Vidne returned for a visit and was
an honorary doctorate from his alma mater.
Vidne is not sure why he
decided to be a doctor, but the main influence apparently was the fact
shortly before, one of his young cousins underwent heart surgery and was
“I will never know the real reason,” he writes.
In January 1959, public
college education was free, and he was accepted to medical school.
study histology and anatomy, he paid a dropout medical student to
large collection of tissue slides, devoted himself to reading anatomy
his own, passed the tests and went directly to the second year. “If you
invest and devote yourself to studies, there is nothing that you can’t
overcome.” He also did odd jobs to pay his expenses and lived largely on
meal a day for five years.
Entering his fourth year, he was drafted by
the Argentinean army and sent to a closed base for basic training.
waste a whole year of medical school, he studied in the bathroom after
lights were turned off. Vidne was discovered with his books by a very
sergeant major who didn’t like students. Fortunately, the young man
the sympathetic base commander, who invited him to study at night in his
personal office. When Vidne had to attend some mandatory classes, the
sent him on imaginary assignments outside the base so he would not be
at the gate. Vidne clearly had a good fairy watching over him.
people generally have an advantage, writes Vidne, as they are more
the rich and hungry for advancement.
Earning his diploma at 24, Vidne
married his wife Naomi and sailed to Israel in 1964.
Aliya and working as
a doctor were his two fondest dreams. He met Prof. Haim Doron, who later
director-general and chairman of Kupat Holim Clalit (now Clalit Health
and was a founder of the Health Sciences Faculty at Ben-Gurion
Doron was then in charge of the health fund’s Negev district
and desperate to bring more doctors to the developing South.
his offer of a post in a Dimona clinic, Vidne insisted on doing his
Soroka Hospital in Beersheba and for two years studied general surgery.
received, he was fortunate in having nimble, pianist’s hands and the
determination of a long-distance runner.
He was offered a place at
Beilinson with Prof. Morris Levy, head of cardiothoracic surgery, who
Israel’s pioneer in open-heart operations and performed the first
transplant in 1968. As it turned out, Vidne assisted Levy in that
operation on a 42-year-old critically ill patient who died a few weeks
because heart surgeons had not discovered then how to cope with the
rejection of a foreign organ. Vidne knew he was participating in an
and historic event that opened a new era in Israeli medicine. Today,
anti-rejection drugs and better technologies, heart transplantation is a
Vidne’s rise at Beilinson was temporarily halted one day when
the head of the heart institute came to the operating theater to consult
him over the case of a child he was treating. Levy, with whom Vidne had a
father-and-son relationship, suddenly entered. “He boiled with anger and
that he himself should have been consulted rather than I.” Given the
shoulder, Vidne realized he had to leave. In 1980, he joined Ichilov to
new cardiac surgery department that the Health Ministry was persuaded to
with help from prime minister Menachem Begin. He transferred even though
salary was much lower than at Beilinson, and he had a wife and four
support. A decade later, he moved back to Beilinson and (with no ill
replaced Levy, who had just retired, as department head.
performed many operations on adults with degenerative heart disease, he
drawn to treat children with congenital heart problems, which he calls
“production defects.” Thus repairing them was “the closest man could get
creation.” Vidne improved on and developed new techniques.
decades babies with heart problems had to be sent abroad for surgery,
surgeons gradually learned abroad and brought know-how back with them so
today, their expertise is equal to that in the world’s best centers. At
Beilinson, he persuaded the director-general to allow him to save a
ill patient in his 40s by implanting a temporary artificial heart – an
first. He also saved the lives of premature babies as young as two days
Vidne does not hide medical errors and misjudgments, which every
surgeon recalls vividly. While tragic, these occurrences always pushed
make improvements in his techniques. Often, he was able to save such
the last minute by using a different one. He admits that he found the
any patient heartbreaking and traumatic. “Whoever doesn’t suffer when he
patient isn’t fit to work in medicine. I have always demanded of my
department doctors to be critical of themselves... Recognizing errors is
simple, and there is no doubt that they are wrapped in a heavy emotional
but if you learn to turn this into a rational process of thinking,
learning, you’ll be able to gain and lead yourself to higher and more
levels of implementation.”
Today, in retirement, Vidne notes that many
cardiothoracic surgery directors are his former students, and “60
percent to 80%
of all heart operations today are supervised by surgeons who grew up in
Each of them reflects our years of joint work.
were angry at me or bore a grudge when they studied with me, I know that
their subconscious they recognized the fact that it would lead to