Twenty five years is a long time, but I still well up with emotion when I think about what happened. I have the same feeling now as I type this. On October 27, 1985, while flying his private plane with his new wife returning from St. Simon Island, Georgia, Andreas Gruentzig flew into a thunderstorm over Macon, Georgia crashed and died along with his wife.
No one knew until the next day when Dr. Gruentzig did not appear to do his cases that were scheduled. By the early afternoon, Dr. Spencer King and Dr. Gary Roubin went to Macon to identify the bodies. The world had lost a brilliant mind and certainly the best angiographer I will ever see.
Dr. Gruentzig was at the time the most heralded cardiologist in the world. He was the inventor of balloon angioplasty. He learned angioplasty from Dr. Eberhardt Zeitler who was a disciple of Dr. Charles Dotter who used graduated probes to “push” open arteries. Dr. Gruentzig fashioned balloons in his kitchen sink and did the first balloon angioplasty in a peripheral artery in 1974. Soon afterward, he decided that the same thing could be done in the coronary arteries after animal experiments. The first human angioplasty was done intraoperatively in San Francisco by Dr. Gruentzig and Dr. Myler. Soon after, on September 16, 1977, in Zurich Switzerland Dr. Gruentzig did the first angioplasty in the cath lab on an awake patient. The patient was recathed October 20, 1977, and the site was open - 10 and 30 years later the patient’s artery is still open as demonstrated by repeat catheterizations.
Stop for a minute and think about this one individual who thought he could do something - even though almost everyone around him thought he was crazy. No one can work in the heart arteries, they said. He began teaching everyone who wanted to learn. First by starting a course where doctors could learn and see the techniques (yes, he started that industry also), then by coming to the United States to Emory University to continue his groundbreaking work and to teach people like myself how to perform angioplasty and when not to.
Think about how many lives have been saved and how many people have been touched by this man and his achievement. Born in 1939, in Dresden Germany, he survived the firebombing which followed, escaping with his mother before the wall went up. He went on to graduate from medical school and became a gynecologist. He ended where his path led him to angiology or as we know it today, interventional radiology. He was a charming and brilliant man and we, who were touched by him, miss him.
He and his wife are buried in Macon, Georgia far from his home in Germany. Hundreds of people attended their funeral. In an interesting twist of fate, all of the pioneers of invasive cardiology Sones, Dotter, Judkins and Gruentzig all died in 1985. We will never know what else could have been accomplished by Dr. Gruentzig and these other physicians. What they did accomplish stands as a testimony to what man can do to help his fellow man.