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Pulling a Prestigious Career from a Country Doctor’s Bag

The well-worn paths of a country doctor lead Floyd D. Loop, M.D. ’62, from rural Indiana to the center stage of cardiovascular surgery

By Steve Goldstein

His left hand in his father’s, his right clutching the black doctor’s bag, young Floyd Loop made the rounds with his dad on the rural farms of Lafayette, Ind. It seemed the right kind of life to the boy, the country doctor’s life. “I interacted with a lot of patients and I saw their appreciation and the gratification my father received,” he recalled seven decades later.

Floyd D. Loop
Floyd D. Loop, M.D. ’62

And he did become a doctor, but events conspired to pluck him from the pastoral setting of spending his career as a rural family doc, and led him to become one of the world’s leading heart surgeons and head of the renowned Cleveland Clinic.

As graduation ceremony speaker for the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) class of 2013, Floyd D. Loop, M.D. ’62, will speak about the opportunities ahead for medical graduates. After graduating from Purdue University and GW Medical School in 1962, he received postgraduate surgical training at GW. He served in the United States Air Force at Andrews Air Force Base, and later trained in cardiothoracic surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. In 1971 Loop was appointed to the staff of the Cleveland Clinic. He became chair of the Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery in 1975, a post he held until 1989 when he was named chief executive officer of the Cleveland Clinic and chair, Board of Governors.

Floyd Loop has performed more than 12,000 open-heart operations and is the author of 350 papers on all aspects of cardiovascular surgery. During his 15-year tenure as chief executive, he led a reorganization of the clinic and enhanced its academics. Under his leadership, the clinic built new specialty and research buildings on campus and designed a new health delivery system by acquiring eight Cleveland-area hospitals and constructing an additional 14 outpatient clinics. The Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, the first new U.S. medical school in 25 years, opened in 2002.

His experience in Washington, D.C., shaped his career. Unlike the modern digs of today, the medical school of Loop’s days at GW was housed in a Civil War-era building in the 1300 block of H St., N.W. “I liked to go to the old bookstores and browse for hours,” he recalls. “You could walk everywhere. My roommates and I lived in northern Virginia and I had an old Vespa motor scooter we used to get to class. I remember seeing Vice President Richard Nixon, who was being driven to ‘work.’ He always waved to us. Washington was a real sleepy town then.”

Following his second year, Loop started his rotation through the various services and quickly took a liking to surgery. This brought him into contact with Brian Blades, M.D., the former Lewis B. Saltz Chair of Surgery. “The surgeons on his staff were superb, and they were excellent teachers,” says Loop. In return for a draft deferment to finish his residency, Loop agreed to serve in the Air Force. Blades arranged for Loop to serve at Andrews Air Force Base, where he gained surgical experience. “I got a year’s credit on my residency and returned to GW to complete my residency,” Loop says.

Under his leadership, the Cleveland Clinic rose to be ranked consistently in the 10 top hospitals in the United States. Loop was named one of 30 persons who made the greatest contributions to Cleveland in the past 30 years.

After completing his third year of training, Loop sought out Blades and related his intended plans. “He listened patiently and then he said, ‘No, you’re going to the Cleveland Clinic,’” Loop remembers. “His first resident, Don Effler, M.D., ran the program there. Blades said things were changing in cardiac surgery and Effler and his staff were in the forefront. I took his advice and that was a defining moment.”

Loop gained an international reputation as a heart surgeon. He assembled a group of skilled and experienced thoracic and cardiovascular surgeons who helped enhance the clinic’s reputation. Loop and his colleagues were responsible for today’s widespread use of arterial conduits in coronary artery surgery, innovations in valve repair, and pioneering technical improvements for re-operations.

Under his leadership, the Cleveland Clinic rose to be ranked consistently in the 10 top hospitals in the United States. “He had a solid vision for growth for the clinic’s health system,” current CEO Delos Cosgrove, M.D., told Crain’s Cleveland Business. “He pushed the organization in the right direction that was fundamental to achieving our current status.”

Loop says he foresees further innovations in heart surgery for less invasive surgery. Today he serves on public and private corporate boards. In 2009, he published a book, titled Leadership and Medicine. “I think physicians should lead health care institutions,” he explains. “They can talk to fellow doctors better than business people can, and they can always learn business fundamentals.”

Orchids, gardening, and orchards form Loop’s horticultural passions. His constant companions are a pair of golden doodles named Lewis and Clark. He also keeps in close contact with his four daughters. He was married for 25 years to cardiologist and former National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Bernadine Healy, M.D., who died in August 2011. “We kept an apartment in Washington when she was at NIH and the Red Cross, but she came home to Cleveland every weekend,” he says. Healy was the first woman to lead NIH.

Loop says he once imagined himself as a civil engineer, but that career path was “always a distant second.” His father’s experience was instructive — and seductive. Nevertheless, the boy clutching his country doctor father’s black bag, dreaming of a life of bucolic medicine — “delivering babies, fixing hernias, making house calls” — got a little sidetracked. “Those were good days, and they gave me some incentive,” Loop says. Doubtless, those residents of rural Indiana who may rue the loss of a young practitioner, but will admit Loop’s heart was always in his work.

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