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Touching Real and Artificial Hearts in Grafton, Vermont

June 2, 2011

Touching Real and Artificial Hearts in Grafton, Vermont

Bill’s Curious Old Tavern Tales

Old timers used to say that if you stay in one place long enough, the whole world will pass your door. Well, I’ve been here at The Old Tavern quite some time, and while nothing as grand as the whole world has passed my door, many a thing “wondrous strange” has, and I’d like to tell you of some of these occurrences – great and small. One tale at a time, of course. Why not start with the most recent?

Shortly after we reopened the inn this spring, I had just come to work at 4 pm and, as is my custom, went to the front desk immediately to assess the level of business and to survey the list of arriving guests.

As I was standing there, a couple approached, bags in hand, obviously ready to check in. I asked for their names. – Dr. and Mrs. Jack Kolff.

As Dr. Kolff was signing the register, I asked, “I don’t recall ever having seen the name Kolff. Is it by any chance Dutch in origin?” “Dat zeker, meneer! Kolff is echt Nederlands!” (“Most certainly, sir. Kolff is authentic Netherlands!”) came the reply. This was a surprise since Dr. K’s English was pure American, but it was just this moment of surprise that prompted me, without thinking, to reply to him in Dutch.

I have been studying Dutch for years – an odd but entirely explicable hobby whose story I’ll save for another day.

Well, this exchange initiated a delightful conversation joined as well by Pat Kolff, who has mastered quite nicely the intricacies of the Dutch language. Exciting as it was, I couldn’t let myself go on too long, as the Kolffs had been traveling and needed simply to unwind. After all, the very reason so many guests come to Grafton is for rest and recuperation.  Later that evening, however, when our conversation continued and our personal stories were unfolding, Pat turned to Jack and said, “Tell him about your Dad, Jack.”

As it turns out, Jack’s Dad was Dr. Willem “Pim” Kolff, the man who invented the kidney dialysis machine, the heart lung machine, and the artificial heart, and his inventions have saved – and are still saving – millions of lives. In the medical world he is known as the “Father of Artificial Organs.” It is challenging just to consider the brilliance of a mind that could conceive of such amazing machines, but when one knows that the dialysis machine was born during the time of the German occupation of Holland and that, because of a lack of materials, the prototype was constructed using sausage casings, discarded tin cans, and other simple stuff….well, it seems almost super-human.

The Dutch are a resourceful lot, and Dr. W. Kolff found ways of using his hospital in Kampen, Holland, not only to treat seriously sick people but to save several hundred souls destined for concentration camps in Germany. I do believe, however, that it is characteristic of the Dutch that even at the height of their cultural achievements, they most often have their feet planted firmly in the ground, knowing who they are and what they are about. Certainly this seemed to be the case with Dr. W. Kolff who, despite trunks full of medals and numerous doctorates, as well as being nominated three times for a Nobel Prize, never for a minute lost sight of his life-saving goals.

I was deeply moved by what Jack and Pat Kolff told me, and only a few days after their visit, a package arrived containing the biography of Dr. Willem Kolff titled, Inventor for Life. But there is more to this story.

You should know that Dr. Jack Kolff had a very distinguished career as a cardiac surgeon. In fact it was he who was responsible for solving the challenging problem of how to fit the artificial heart, invented by his father, into the human chest cavity. Jack’s specialty was heart transplant and by-pass surgery, and while much of his career was spent in Philadelphia, he worked for a few years in Holland. Well, it was two weeks after the Kolffs’ departure from the inn that, on a busy Friday night, with all tables in the Barn pub filled, a party of six people arrived. I was trying my best to figure out how I might seat them, and in speaking to the patriarch of the group, I noticed his Dutch accent. I then addressed him in Dutch, and we commenced to have a most interesting conversation during the course of which, I told him of my recent experience with Dr. Kolff. He listened intently and then turned suddenly to his wife. After a few moments he turned back to me with a delighted expression on his face. “You know”, he said, “about 35 years ago, Dr. Jack Kolff performed emergency open heart surgery on my wife’s sister in Leiden, Holland. She was three months pregnant, and both she and the baby came through just fine!!”

What a world! Right here in little Grafton – right here at The Old Tavern…..if you just wait long enough!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Mulrey permalink
    June 2, 2011 5:37 pm

    Fantastic story Bill. To say its a small world sounds trite but is very true.

  2. Raymond Harrison permalink
    June 9, 2011 12:52 pm

    An amazing story! Jung would say that The Old Tavern is merely a watershed for synchronicity. There are no accidents.

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