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New Jersey’s First Heart Surgery Patient Wishes Deborah a Happy 100th Birthday

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Bill DiMartino and Dora Hanson

When three-year old Bill DiMartino had open-heart surgery on July 28, 1958, he had no idea he was making history. But when Dr. Charles Bailey operated on Bill, and then 36-year old Dora Hanson, he ushered in the new age of cardiac surgery.

Bill DiMartino was the first patient in New Jersey to have heart surgery.

“To tell you the truth,” he says “I never really thought too much about it growing up. I never thought of myself as ‘famous’. My parents put it to me as a warning: ‘You got a gift, another chance.’”

Bill thinks that perhaps his parents suggesting when he was young that he received a gift of life subconsciously shaped his future decisions.

“I always loved music, and that became my life. Whether it was a wise or unwise decision, I followed my dream.”

Bill remembers growing up in South Brunswick, when it was very rural. “We didn’t have a downtown and a record store.”

So when he left to formally study music, first at Middlesex County College, then Livingston College, followed by Mannes College of Music, he immersed himself in a new world. Studying jazz in the ‘70s in New Brunswick and then in Harlem, Bill was hooked, and he never looked back.

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Bill DiMartino

The drummer notes: “I have lived my whole life as a professional musician, teaching, playing in bands, and DJing.” Again, his heart surgery may have been an underlying theme in some of his musical choices.

“Although my ‘healthy habits’ sort of ebbed and flowed as I grew up, and I ate my share of big sloppy hamburgers, I found healthy foods. My parents never had great health – my dad had heart disease and my mom cancer – so that I got involved with healthy eating and a plant-based diet.”

This complemented his very slim physique, which fit nicely into the ‘80s and the punk era, which was a prolific time for Bill – recording both with The Rockin’ Bricks, a staple on the New Brunswick punk

circuit, and the well-regarded jazz album “For Now at Least” recorded with the Laurie Altman Quintet.

Bill’s passion for music continues to this day. At 66 the Madison resident is still jamming at clubs, concerts, and theaters with two bands: the ‘60s tribute Carnaby Street and Rave On, featuring the music of Buddy Holly, as well as playing on the 2021 international release “Let’s Bubblegum The Punk!”

“I love the energy in the music business.”

The perennial night owl says his wife Fran is very patient with his music and hours, as well as his practice room, loaded with drums and percussion.

The mother of four boys, Bill jokes that she said “Part of the reason our marriage works is that I’ve raised four sons. I’ve seen everything. I’ve heard everything. I’ve smelled everything.”

As to his health and medical journey that started that auspicious day in July of 1958, Bill says he has few memories from the time.

Bill and his wife Fran
Bill and his wife Fran.

“I do remember the lobby of the building where I was staying. It was curved. [It was the Elichmann Pavilion, no longer standing on Deborah’s campus.] A reporter came in to interview me, and brought me a

gift. A truck. It’s my only clear memory of the time.”

“I know this was groundbreaking, almost ‘space age’ surgery at the time. Growing up I always followed up with the doctor. I would get a fluoroscopy and go to the lab to draw blood then we’d go to the diner for breakfast. I kept doing my annuals until high school.”

Later as an adult, Bill came to more fully appreciate how his childhood surgery paved the way for today’s modern cardiac care. “In 2019, I had cardiovascular disease, and I needed four stents put in. How far heart procedures have come since I was little and had my operation, to now going for an in and out routine procedure!”

Bill, who over the years has visited Deborah for special events, and done interviews that chronicle Deborah’s pivotal role in the history of cardiac surgery, said he was very thankful for the ground-breaking operation he had received.

“I am glad to have been a vehicle for Dr. Bailey. I am so happy that he was able to help me, and I wish Deborah a very happy 100th birthday!”

Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, NJ is an 89-bed teaching hospital that specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, research, and treatment of heart, lung, and vascular diseases. Founded in 1922, Deborah has been a regional and nationally recognized leader throughout its 100-year history, during which time it has healed 2.3 million patients from every corner of the United States and 87 countries in the world. From performing the first open heart surgeries (adult and pediatric) in New Jersey, to running one of the highest volume left-ventricular assist device (LVAD) implant programs in the region, Deborah has stood at the forefront of medical innovation, all while never wavering from its founding mission “there is no price on life.” Deborah is consistently recognized as a leader in patient care from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, ranked among the top hospitals in New Jersey for patient satisfaction; holds a top-tier Society of Thoracic Surgeons rating which places Deborah among the best cardiac surgery programs in the country; and is designated a national Top Teaching Hospital by The Leapfrog Group. Deborah is an Alliance member of the Cleveland Clinic Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute. 

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