Home Heart Transplant Milwaukee's first heart transplant started with a single punch

Milwaukee's first heart transplant started with a single punch

9 min read


Chris Foran


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Published 10:00 AM EDT Oct 9, 2018

A milestone in Milwaukee medical history started with a late-night street argument.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 20, 1968, Robert Buelow, a 30-year-old Milwaukeean, was riding in a car on S. 17th Street when a man stepped out in front of the vehicle. The driver stopped, and Buelow went out to exchange words with the wayward walker when the pedestrian's brother-in-law, Lloyd G. Johnson, joined the argument and punched Buelow in the face.

Buelow fell backward and struck his head on the pavement. He was taken to County General Hospital, where he was determined to have irreversible brain damage.

At St. Luke's Hospital, a surgical team working with a woman needing a heart transplant was alerted to the possibility of a donor. Buelow's family was approached and, when Buelow was pronounced dead at 5:39 p.m. Oct. 21, doctors harvested his heart for transplant into the body of Betty Anick, a 49-year-old West Allis woman.

The procedure, completed by 9:30 p.m. the same day, was the first heart transplant in Wisconsin, and just the 58th worldwide. The operation, The Milwaukee Journal reported on Oct. 22, 1968, made Milwaukee "the sixth or seventh center in the United States where heart transplantation has been accomplished."

The surgery took place just 10 months after the first human heart transplant, conducted by surgeon Christiaan Barnard in South Africa in December 1967.

The Milwaukee heart transplant team was headed by surgeons Derward Lepley Jr. and W. Dudley Johnson, both of Marquette Medical School. (Marquette Medical School, at one time affiliated with Marquette University, changed its name to Medical College of Wisconsin in 1970; St. Luke's is now Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center.)

ARCHIVE: Pioneering heart surgeon W. Dudley Johnson dies

A decade earlier, Anick was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. By 1964, she was suffering from heart failure, with other treatments having no impact.

"Betty couldn't even pick up a dish rag," her husband, John Anick, told The Journal's Alex P. Dobish in an Oct. 22, 1968, front-page story after the surgery.

John Anick knew from heart trouble; he had had a pacemaker installed in 1961, reportedly the first pacemaker installed in Milwaukee. Lepley, chief of heart surgery at St. Luke's, was his doctor, too.

The Journal's James Spaulding noted in another Oct. 22 story that the surgical team — which until then had been practicing the procedure on human and dog cadavers — hadn't intended to perform a transplantation so soon, but the Anicks "reportedly persuaded them to go ahead."

The family of the man whose heart was used in the procedure told The Journal it wasn't an easy decision.

"We sat there on that bench in the hospital for four or five hours," Edward Ridgen, Buelow's brother-in-law, told The Journal's Robert W. Wells in an Oct. 22 story. "At first we said no. But then we sat there and thought about it and, finally, my wife figured it would be the thing to do. We weren't pushed. … But we decided it would be a good thing."

As Betty Anick recovered in the hospital — both newspapers updated her status daily — the incident that made her surgery possible continued through the legal system.

Johnson, a carpenter from Bettendorf, Iowa, came back to Milwaukee and turned himself in on Oct. 23, 1968, after learning he was wanted in the fight that led to Buelow's death.

Johnson was charged with manslaughter in Buelow's death. But on April 21, 1969, the district attorney's office requested the charge be reduced to aggravated battery because, The Journal reported, "a charge of manslaughter required the state to prove that an attack occurred in the heat of passion and that that would be difficult to prove because Johnson threw only one punch."

The change from manslaughter also took out of the picture a potentially contentious trial point: "an unprecedented legal exploration of the problems of heart transplants and death."

Johnson pleaded no contest, and on June 2, 1969, was placed on three years' probation.

Anick went home on Nov. 25, 1968. Exiting the hospital, she was greeted by a score of reporters and photographers.

"I feel wonderful, real happy to go home," she said, according to The Journal's Jo Sandin in a front-page story.

In December 1968, both papers reported that all but $252 of the $18,669 hospital bill was covered by John Anick's Wisconsin Blue Cross from his employer, American Motors.

On Nov. 27, 1974, Anick, then 55 and more than six years removed from her operation, became at the time the longest-surviving heart transplant recipient, following the death of Louis B. Russell, a Virginia man who had a transplant two months before Anick.

When asked about her status, Anick told the Sentinel in a Nov. 28, 1974, story, "I wish I was the second-longest, because then we would have Louie yet."

Anick herself died on March 20, 1977, of a heart attack in her mobile home in Nokomis, Fla., where she and husband John had moved a few weeks earlier.

Our Back Pages: 1968

About this feature

On Wednesdays this year, the Green Sheet's Our Back Pages will look back at 1968 in Milwaukee, sharing stories of the events that shaped and reflected a changing city as reported and photographed by the Journal Sentinel's predecessor newspapers, The Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.

Special thanks and kudos go to senior multimedia designer Bill Schulz for finding many of the gems in the Journal Sentinel photo archives.

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