I’m sitting in the Oklahoma City home of one of the world’s most famous medical scientists. Very few characteristics distinguish it from any other home in the Nichols Hills area – in fact, it is one of the most modest. But above Dr. Nazih Zuhdi’s head is a framed, lovingly preserved bouquet of flowers his wife held when the streets in front of the Oklahoma History Center were named for Zuhdi and his spouse.
Pavarotti trills throughout the entire house.
“I love Luciano,” Zuhdi tells me, gesturing me to sit on the couch. “All day, I must have him.”
Threatening to overshadow both the singer and Zuhdi himself is Bob, 10 pounds of Pomeranian fluff twirling and barking along with the opera.
“He is smart,” Zuhdi tells me, winking roguishly. “He is stealing the show.”
The first year was an experience to me because I spent it learning about the founding fathers of the United States.
“They chose me to be in it,” he says proudly of the 1968 reference. “The only Oklahoman. They list a lot of things, mainly the big three … the last two were done in Oklahoma. Not in New York, Washington or Minnesota. Right here.”
He thumps the volume for emphasis. Those three things – developing an assisted circulation machine to support patients during open heart surgery; inventing the total intentional hemodilution technique, and inventing an artificial bypass heart – are a portion of what has earned Zuhdi the prestige and notoriety he commands today.
“This is important because people forget history. This cannot be forgotten,” he says.
Now 90 years old and as dynamic a personality as ever, Zuhdi is in no danger of being lost to memory, neither during his lifetime nor in the future. His inventions have saved the lives of millions across the globe, and his surgical techniques are now standard practice in every cardiac and transplant operating room in the world. When travelers arrive at the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, his name greets them on the banner for the Nazih Zuhdi Transplant Institute at INTEGRIS Baptist Hospital, the first comprehensive organ transplant center in the nation.
Like many of the travelers disembarking before his banner in the airport terminal, Zuhdi’s journey to Oklahoma began thousands of miles away.
Born in 1925 in Beirut, Lebanon, he evinced an early fascination with medicine. His father, an ophthalmologist who had trained at the University of Vienna, would often allow Zuhdi to accompany him and observe his surgeries. Zuhdi was eager to begin his medical education as soon as possible.
“When I finished my high school, I went right away to the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. That was in about 1842.” Zuhdi chuckles. “Nineteen-forty-two, excuse me.”
Already set on a career in medicine, Zuhdi was captivated by two other subjects that would further shape his life.
“The first year was an experience to me because I spent it learning about the founding fathers of the United States,” Zuhdi says. “Washington, Adams, Jefferson, all the way to Lincoln. I also studied the three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. They are very similar. And so I became totally educated in those matters. They changed my life, actually.”