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Dr. Kevin Murray, C'68

Kevin Murray

A Call to Heal

In many respects, Kevin Murray became a successful heart surgeon because his older brother dared him he couldn’t do it. That was the way it was between Kevin and Jim Murray. Both attended the Mount, were very close and very competitive. “He was always my idol,” says Murray of Jim, who graduated from the Mount in 1968 with honors in chemistry.

Dr. Murray was focusing on chemistry, too, his first year at the Mount and considering becoming a high school chemistry teacher. His brother, who was pursuing a career in medicine, had other plans for him.

“I was home visiting my parents in Hagerstown, and Jim and I were playing basketball,” recalls Dr. Murray. “He asked how the semester was going. I said good enough.  He got mad at me and asked, ‘Why aren’t you going to medical school? Don’t you want to? Or is the real reason that you can’t do it?”

That challenge proved to be life-changing for Dr. Murray. Today, he is not only a successful heart surgeon, teacher and researcher, but one of the pioneers of the artificial heart, the Jarvik 7. 

Dr. Murray pursued his new career with gusto. In fact, he was admitted into medical school his junior year at the Mount. “Jim did it in four years, so I decided to do it in three,” says Dr. Murray, grinning. He took the MCATs his sophomore year and then applied to the University of Maryland Medical School.

Dr. Murray received his degree with honors from the Mount in 1978 as part of the class of 1975 and upon completing medical school. “There was no hesitation on the part of the Mount. When I said I wanted to go to medical school, the response was, ‘Here’s how we’re going to help you.’”

When it came time for Dr. Murray to focus on his area of specialty, he selected surgery, again thanks to his brother Jim, who was now a doctor with the Air Force. “I remember him saying that he wished he had been a surgeon,” says Dr. Murray. “So guess what? I was going to be a surgeon.”

He went on to the University of Chicago Hospitals and Clinics for his internship and residency in general surgery, later followed by cardiothoracic surgery at Yale University. At these institutions he was surrounded by fellow residents, most of whom came with Ivy League educations. “But I was their equal or better, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Mount for that.”

However, as he was discovering his call as a physician, he suffered a great loss. His brother Jim passed away in 1981, due to what is believed to be the result of a heart arrhythmia. “There became this huge hole in my life,” he says.

He continued his career, though, and during his last year at the University of Chicago became involved with an NIH grant to study calcium metabolism in cells. But walking by a newsstand one day, a headline caught his eye. “There was this picture of an artificial heart and the headline was, ‘The Artificial Heart Is Here,’” he says. He read the article and was intrigued.

The major players involved with this research at the time were at such institutions as Harvard and Penn State. Yet Dr. Murray saw promise at the University of Utah and chose to work with their Institute of Bio-Engineering’s Division of Artificial Organs.

When he arrived, the group was attempting to find a patient for the Jarvik 7, an artificial heart developed by Robert Jarvik and fellow researchers. In the fall of 1982, Dr. Murray was working with implanting an artificial heart into a cow, when “this man and his wife came through with a physician,” he remembers. “After looking at the cow and all the equipment, the man said, ‘This isn’t for me.’”

That man was Barney Clark, a Seattle dentist and the first recipient of the artificial heart. Clark changed his mind about the procedure after becoming very ill. At the time, Dr. Murray felt that if the first recipient lived two to three days, “that would be miraculous.” Clark lived 112 days.

The media took to the story immediately. The Jarvick 7 made the cover of Time and Newsweek. Murray himself was interviewed by “Good Morning America.” When Clark died from secondary complications, the Jarvik 7 still beating strongly in his chest, the press stated that the transplant was not a success. But Dr. Murray sees it differently. Because of Clark’s bravery the artificial heart is used today to extend life for patients waiting for a human heart transplant.

“This was a phenomenal moment in history,” says Dr. Murray, who plans to attend a 25th anniversary gathering of the team in December.

Dr. Murray went on to teach and practice medicine, remaining a consultant in the field of artificial heart development. He has been director of the artificial heart program at Ohio State, a faculty member at Washington University’s School of Medicine and chief of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Nevada’s School of Medicine. More recently, he left the Kaiser Foundation Hospital’s Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery in Hawaii to join Reid Hospital in Indiana.

He remains amazed at what he does in the operating room. “You stop the heart, work on it, and start it again. During that time, it is sitting there doing nothing, no pulse,” he says. “Then the next day when you visit the patient, he or she is sitting in a chair and talking to you. You’ve held this patient’s heart in your hands.”

But, “I feel that I never saved a life. I believe God saves lives.”

Looking back on his own life, he has only one regret. “I wish Jim were here,” he says.

Jim is not forgotten. Dr. Murray has seen to that. In fact, there is a room in the science building at the Mount named in honor of Kevin Murray’s brother–James Murray, M.D.  The older brother who dreamed big enough for both of them.

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