Dr. Lawrence H. Cohn, 78; ‘master of masters’ in cardiac surgery
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On a snowy April day in 1971, Dr. Lawrence H. Cohn sat talking with legendary Boston heart surgeon Dr. John J. Collins Jr., who was persuading him to leave the prestigious cardiothoracic program at Stanford University School of Medicine and come to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital.
"There is one thing I've got to know," Dr. Cohn asked Collins. "I'm coming from Stanford where we do things completely differently. How are the Stanford techniques going to fit into the Brigham?" In a 2006 interview with the American Journal of Cardiology, Dr. Cohn recalled that Collins replied: "I want you to bring in all the Stanford techniques here. We are going to change everything."
Dr. Cohn, who was 78 when he died of a stroke Saturday in Brigham and Women's Hospital, changed more than just the way things had been done at the Brigham, his professional home for 45 years. An internationally renowned surgeon, he was a pioneer in minimally invasive procedures to fix heart valves. He also performed considerably more than 11,000 surgeries, including being part of the team for New England's first heart transplant, which took place at the Brigham.
Dr. Francis D. Moore, a leading figure in 20th century medicine, personally sought to bring Dr. Cohn to the Brigham. "He regarded Larry as his finest recruit, and told me that many times," said Moore's son, Dr. Francis D. Moore Jr., who is chief of the division of gastrointestinal and general surgery at Brigham and Women's.
In turn, Dr. Cohn became a legendary mentor, training surgeons who went on to lead cardiac divisions across the country and as far away as Australia. "He believed that holding a patient's heart in one's hand was a privilege, and he was determined that those he taught would be worthy of that privilege," said Dr. Betsy Nabel, who is president of Brigham and Women's and trained under Dr. Cohn as a cardiology fellow 30 years ago.
Last June, the Journal of Thoracic Disease called Dr. Cohn "a master of masters in cardiac surgery," an assessment echoed by those he had trained.
"Larry was a fantastic surgeon to watch and to learn from," said Dr. Prem S. Shekar, who is chief of cardiac surgery at Brigham and Women's. Training under Dr. Cohn as a cardiac fellow, Shekar added, "was truly a life-changing experience for a surgeon" — a source of lessons he now passes on to his trainees: "During surgery, I tell the resident, 'This is what Dr. Cohn taught me.' "
Dr. Cohn's reach extended beyond those he personally taught. He authored more than 400 papers and "Cardiac Surgery in the Adult," which the Journal of Thoracic Disease said is "the most referenced text book in adult cardiac surgery today."
Celebrated often throughout his career, Dr. Cohn was presented with the Paul Dudley White Award, the American Heart Association's highest honor, and also received an honorary master's of medicine from Harvard University and an honorary doctorate from the University of Paris.
"He was an outstanding teacher of young surgeons and he was a great physician," said Dr. Eugene Braunwald, who is one of Boston's most prominent cardiologists, and was a mentor to Dr. Cohn.
Shekar said Dr. Cohn "always enforced the point that surgery can be very simple, and in its very simplest form it can be very effective. He preached simplicity and effectiveness, rather than making something long-winded and complex. His phrase was always: 'Keep it simple.' "
Lawrence Harvey Cohn was born in San Francisco and spent much of his boyhood in the city's Sea Cliff neighborhood. His mother, the former Dorothy Cohen, was an accomplished pianist. His father, Harold Cohn, ran a building materials business. "I think I got my work ethic from my father," Dr. Cohn told the American Journal of Cardiology. "He always enjoyed working. He worked the day before he went to the hospital and died at the age of 83."
Dr. Cohn learned about the business world through working for his father making deliveries and unloading materials, and also found lessons for his future in medicine. "Physicians have to relate to every kind of person," he said in that 2006 interview, "and by meeting the public early I learned to relate to just about every kind of person you come in contact with today."
He graduated from Lowell High School and received a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied American history and took pre-med classes.
While at Stanford University School of Medicine, Dr. Cohn married Roberta Spivock. "I met her at a party when I was 12, and she was 11," he told the cardiology journal, adding that she was "cute, vivacious, smart, and we hit it off very well. She has been enormously supportive to my career."
"He took me to my first high school dance," she recalled. They married in 1960 and in their time in Boston, including many years in Chestnut Hill, they were involved with numerous organizations. Dr. Cohn was an overseer for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston.
Dr. Cohn also was actively involved with the Museum of Fine Arts. The Cohn Library at Brigham and Women's, which opened in 2008, is named for his family and includes rare antique books about cardiovascular medicine.
Roberta Cohn recalled that her husband "was a character. He used to say 'I'm bi-sportal.' He played golf and tennis all the time."
She added that "he was a wonderful father. He loved his children tremendously. When he was at the hospital, all someone had to do was mention his girls and he was a pussycat. We just had a grandson and he thought that was the best thing ever to have another man in the family."
In addition to his wife and grandson, Dr. Cohn leaves two daughters, Leslie Bernstein of Newton and Jennifer of San Francisco; and two granddaughters.
A memorial gathering at Brigham and Women's will be announced.
Dr. Cohn "always used to say to everyone 'I fix broken hearts,' " his wife said.
After graduating from medical school, he trained at Boston City Hospital on the Harvard service, at the National Institutes of Health, and at Stanford before being recruited to the Brigham.
In the operating room, Dr. Cohn commanded respect, and more.
"As a student, I remember watching him with great awe, thinking this is really a maestro conducting an orchestra," Nabel said, "and the end result is, metaphorically, a beautiful symphony."
Even amid the intensity of surgery, his wit and facility with an anecdote was present. "The interesting part about working with Dr. Cohn is that you did advanced heart surgery with him, and while you learned a lot from him and did amazing stuff, he always kept the atmosphere light. He kept us engaged and entertained," Shekar said. "You truly enjoyed being in his operating room."
Dr. Cohn was as attentive to his patients as he was to the surgeons he trained, visiting each before surgery and insisting on late night updates from the hospital.
In the 2006 cardiology journal interview, he recalled a speech he once gave to a cardiothoracic surgeons' organization.
"Cardiac surgeons have a terrible reputation of not seeing their patients," Dr. Cohn said. "Whether you spend a minute or two minutes with a patient, saying 'hello' or touching them on the head is very important. It is gratifying to see your surgeon just for a few moments." Such gestures, he added, "is humanism that we all should practice."