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A Pioneer

At 88, she recalls the daring heart surgery that saved her life in 1938

Her surgeon risked his career, but he helped save her life.

Former patient Lorraine Sweeney Nicoli during Boston Children’s 150th anniversary pregame  ceremony at  Fenway Park.
Former patient Lorraine Sweeney Nicoli during Boston Children’s 150th anniversary pregame ceremony at Fenway Park. Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Seven-year-old Lorraine, the day after her groundbreaking 1938 operation.
Seven-year-old Lorraine, the day after her groundbreaking 1938 operation.Boston Children’s Hospital

Eighty-one years later, she can still count the scars from every stitch, more than 25 of them. It’s what binds Lorraine Sweeney Nicoli to her 7-year-old self, the age doctors once warned her parents she may not live past.

Born December 13, 1930, as the youngest of eight in an Irish family, Nicoli (nee Sweeney) recalls a childhood defined by hospital visits. She watched from her family’s home in Brighton as children played outside at Saint Columbkille Partnership School across the street.

“I couldn’t go out like the other children. I couldn’t play or anything,” says the now 88-year-old, sitting in the family room of the home in Burlington where she and her late husband, Paul, raised their two sons. “I used to look out the window.”

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Instead of taking part in normal activities with friends and siblings, the young Lorraine, plagued by exhaustion, was making frequent visits to what is now called Boston Children’s Hospital. Doctors there eventually diagnosed her with patent ductus arteriosus, a heart abnormality that, at the time, generally led to an early death.

Nicoli remembers sitting on a long waiting room bench until called upon by her doctors. “I didn’t understand,” she says. “[My parents] never told me I wasn’t going to live.”

To make matters worse, her father was killed when a car struck him as he crossed a street in Brighton, leaving her mother to grieve while coping with the likely prospect of losing her youngest daughter.

Lorraine and her mother found hope in Dr. Robert Gross, a chief surgical resident who had successfully corrected the heart defect in animals. He believed he could repair the 7-year-old’s heart.

> Related: For more on Boston Children’s 150th anniversary, click here.

Gross was met with skepticism from his colleagues, especially by the hospital’s chief surgeon, Dr. William Ladd. When Ladd went abroad on vacation, Gross asked Lorraine’s mother, Mary-Ellen, for permission to proceed with the operation. She sought advice from their parish priest. “He just said, ‘Leave it in God’s hands,’ and that is what she did,” Nicoli says.

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With a career and a life on the line, Gross performed the surgery — without his supervisor’s permission — on August 26, 1938.

Over the course of two and a half hours, Gross successfully tied off the child’s patent ductus arteriosus — a persistent opening between the two major blood vessels leading from the heart — allowing blood to flow normally. By taking a risk, Gross performed the first successful surgical correction of a congenital heart defect on a human, and Lorraine became the first person in the world to survive such a surgery.

She remained at the hospital to recover, before being transferred to a convalescent home in Wellesley. The drama-filled events were not yet over. During her weeks there, the Great Hurricane of 1938 swept through New England with sustained winds of 121 miles per hour, causing 685 deaths in New England and New York.

After she healed, “life was all different,” she says. “I could go out and play, and I could go to school.”

As for Gross, he was fired immediately after Ladd found out about the surgery, then quickly rehired thanks to overwhelming support from the rest of the hospital. He would go on to take over Ladd’s position.

Nicoli and Gross received national attention. In 1963, the 25th anniversary of the surgery, Nicoli was named Heart Mother of the Year by the American Heart Association. She and Gross appeared together on the Today show that same year. The bond they developed early on strengthened. After Gross retired to Vermont, Nicoli visited him. “He held my hand and we walked around the mountainside,” she says. “I thanked him, and he said, ‘Lorraine, if you didn’t make it, I would probably be a farmer somewhere.’ ” The two kept up a correspondence until Gross’s death in 1988. (Nicoli has donated their letters to the Boston Children’s archive.)

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Eighty-one years have passed since Nicoli’s surgery, yet her story continues to inspire others — even strangers. This summer she received a call from a woman in New Jersey who had undergone the same operation. “She said, ‘I hope I got the right Lorraine Sweeney. I just had the operation, and I want to thank you,’ ” Nicoli recalls.

“I’m just so grateful to God and the Blessed Mother that I’m here,” adds Nicoli, a grandmother and great-grandmother. “It was all up to him.”