Between 1969 and 2001, Dr. Wilbert Keon performed more than 10,000 open-heart surgeries.
But cardiac surgeon was only one aspect of his illustrious career. Dr. Keon founded and directed the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, was a professor of surgery at the University of Ottawa, served in the Canadian Senate for two decades and participated in countless community initiatives in the national capital.
“He’s really the closest thing to a saint Ottawa has,” Mayor Jim Watson once said.
After suffering from cardiovascular disease, the condition he spent a lifetime researching and treating, Dr. Keon died on April 7. He was 83.
Willie, as he was known by everyone from prime ministers and hospital porters, was born in Sheenboro, Que., in 1935, the youngest of 13 children.
A shy but brilliant student, he graduated with a bachelor of science degree from Carleton University in 1957 and, three years later, with a medical degree from the University of Ottawa.
Dr. Keon earned a master of science degree in experimental surgery from McGill University, and trained at Montreal General Hospital, Toronto General, the Hospital for Sick Children and Harvard Medical Center in Boston.
Notably, he trained under legendary surgeon Dr. Wilfred Bigelow, who pioneered the use of hypothermia in surgery and developed the pacemaker, two advances that revolutionized heart surgery.
Like his mentor, Dr. Keon was an innovator. Early in his career, he pioneered a safer method of performing bypass operations. In 1984, he performed Ottawa’s first heart transplant; in 1986, he famously became the first Canadian surgeon to install an “artificial heart” in a patient, and later developed his own version of an artificial heart.
But Dr. Keon’s lasting legacy was the creation of the Ottawa Heart Institute, which brought together prevention, clinical care and research all under one roof.
In 1968, Jean-Jacques Lussier, the dean of medicine at the University of Ottawa, travelled to Houston for heart surgery because it was not available in the capital.
He returned determined to build a Canadian version of the Texas Heart Institute, and recruited Dr. Keon, then a hotshot young surgeon at Harvard, to make it a reality.
After years of ground work, the University of Ottawa Heart Institute opened officially in May, 1976. It was a modest beginning – an office above a parking garage and whatever beds it could scrounge from the Ottawa Civic Hospital. For the first three years, Dr. Keon was the only surgeon, on call 24/7 and always eager to scrub in.
“Most of his time was devoted to the Institute, but I don’t think the children or I ever felt shortchanged,” his wife Anne said back in 2000. (The family declined all interview requests.)
By the time Dr. Keon stopped performing surgery, in 2001, there were seven full-time heart surgeons on staff. He stepped down from leadership of the institute in 2004.
Dr. Robert Roberts, who succeeded him, said that Dr. Keon built a “world-class centre for cardiovascular excellence” but, remarkably, “Willie became a greater icon than The Institute.”
Although humble publicly, Dr. Keon was firm and unflinching in his leadership, his only trace of vanity a full head of never-greying hair.
Everywhere he went, he was recognized and lauded by former patients. And he was out and about often; as Sheila Havey, a long-time employee of the Institute said: “No fundraising event was too small for him to show up and pitch his support. Besides his obvious talents, that’s what endeared him to so many – he mingled with the ordinary souls.”
The online tribute page linked to Dr. Keon’s obituary is overflowing with similar testimonials.
“Despite all his accomplishments and prestige, he still ensured the best care and service for ordinary patients like me,” said Sridhar Parnandi, who underwent open-heart surgery as a four-year-old back in 1987.
“If it were not for his courage, commitment and kindness over 30 years ago, I would not be here today,” wrote Jim Renaud, who in 1988 received a Jarvik artificial heart, then a heart transplant.
When the Ottawa Heart Institute unveiled its greatly expanded facility last year, Dr. Keon was given an exclusive sneak-peak.
“He was almost in tears,” said Dr. Thierry Mesana, the institute’s current president and chief executive. “He said: ‘This is the completion of my dream.’ ”
Dr. Keon made his mark not just wearing scrubs, but in a suit and tie as a senator. He was appointed to the Senate by then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, as a part of a controversial move to flood the upper chamber with Progressive Conservatives so legislation creating the Goods and Services Tax would pass into law.
Dr. Keon was a small-c conservative, but never much of a partisan. A long-time member of a Senate committee on social affairs, science and technology, he played a key role in two landmark reports, “The Health of Canadians: Recommendations for Reform” (better known as the Kirby report), and “Out of the Shadows at Last,” another collaboration with Liberal senator Michael Kirby that led to the creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
Dr. Keon also played an important backroom role in the creation of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Genome Canada.
He left the Senate in 2010, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. But he continued his public service as a board member of the Champlain LHIN (local health integration network).
Throughout his career, Dr. Keon received many honours and accolades, including appointments to the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada, with a rank of officer. In 2007, he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame; the citation describes him as a “visionary” and the “essence of the caring spirit in medicine.”
A devout Roman Catholic, Dr. Keon was named Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II, the highest honour the church can bestow on a layperson.
Among his many charitable activities, Dr. Keon often performed surgery on poor children from developing countries, refusing payment and often raising money for their incidental costs, but he steadfastly refused to publicize these activities.
Although he was once described as a “diminutive saint in a white lab coat,” Dr. Keon’s career was not without hiccups.
When the late Diana, Princess of Wales, toured the Heart Institute in 1991, Dr. Keon invited former patients to occupy the beds in place of the sick ones, and was accused of fakery. But he defended his gesture saying: “I didn’t want a cardiac arrest in front of the princess.”
His darkest moment, however, came in 2000 when he was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer posing as a sex worker. Dr. Keon was never charged because he attended “john school,” and the news only emerged after another person in the class ratted him out to the media.
Dr. Keon immediately offered to resign from the Heart Institute, saying at a tearful news conference that “my judgment that evening was faulty and my conduct was inexcusable.”
But the support from the community – including 14,000 letters sent to the institute – was so overwhelming that his resignation was refused.
In 2013, Dr. Keon became a patient of the Institute he founded after he was diagnosed with a blood clot and arrhythmia. In recent years, he was slowed somewhat by heart disease, and lived almost full-time at the family cottage, located in his hometown of Sheenboro.
Dr. Keon leaves his wife of 59 years, Anne Jennings, three children – Claudia, Neil and Ryan – and eight grandchildren.
Funeral masses were held at both St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa and at St. Paul the Hermit Church in Sheenboro, where Dr. Keon was buried.
At the masses, the family distributed a memorial card inscribed with a quote from legendary physician Sir William Osler: “We are here to add what we can to life, not to get what we can from life.”