Heart And Soul ( By TIME - Jul. 19. 2004 )

I started sewing at an early age. It was after my mother Raheeja's mastery of the needle arts caught the attention of our neighbors in Lake Charles, La., my hometown of some 13,000 people. They had noticed the finely tailored handmade clothing my mother fashioned for her family and the linens she tatted and embroidered. A handful of local parents asked if she would pass on her expertise to their daughters.

Each Tuesday and Friday afternoon, four girls, ages 7 to 14, settled in our pine-paneled living room for an hour. Ever observant and curious, I remained quiet but was eager to create something too. Sensing my interest, my mother encouraged me. Soon I was the littlest learner in those sessions. I eventually made some of my own clothing. I would draw the patterns on paper, cut the fabric according to the design and assemble the pieces on a sewing machine.

Fortunately for me, I was in the right place at the right time. Not yet of school age, I was alone with my mother during the day. Her instruction was so distinctive and her beautiful work so inspiring that I learned easily. She would teach me a technique, for example, by gingerly placing my small fingers in the proper position around needles and yarn rather than telling me I was doing anything wrong.

Equal to my mother's exquisite needle artistry was her compassion for others. Every Sunday she and my father would load our car with extra clothing and homemade meals for the children at the local orphanage. One week I protested when my mother wanted to give away my favorite cap. She reminded me that I would get a new one the very next day but that orphans had no parents to buy them caps. Then she added something I have never forgotten: "There's nothing that can warm your heart more than making someone else feel better."

Years later, my mother's words played a part in my choice of profession. Practicing medicine allowed me to improve and even prolong the lives of others. And I dedicated myself to surgery, the most compelling of all specialties, because I would put to use the manual dexterity I developed as a child.

After I became a doctor, one of my more satisfying achievements occurred in the 1960s, when my colleagues and I performed the first successful coronary-artery bypass, at Methodist Hospital in Houston. Some 30 years earlier, as a medical student at Tulane University in New Orleans in 1932, I began work that helped launch the field of cardiovascular surgery. I devised a pump for blood transfusions, which paved the way for open-heart surgery--still two decades away.

My mother's teachings inspired me again in the early 1950s, when I designed a graft for replacing a diseased aorta and arteries. I chose the then new synthetic cloth Dacron by touch, just as I had done as a boy. I drew the design on paper next, cut the fabric and finally put the prototype together at home on my wife's Singer sewing machine.

Learning to sew as a child isn't a prerequisite for becoming a good surgeon, but caring about people certainly is. I'm convinced I would not have grown up to be the physician I am today had I not received my mother's lessons and taken to heart her most poignant message--that making people feel better is the highest calling of all.

--As told to Michelle Lodge


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