Cardiac surgeon Robert Karp, 1934-2006

May 26, 2006

A pioneer in heart surgery and transplantation, Robert B. Karp, MD, professor emeritus of surgery and the former section chief of cardiac surgery at the University of Chicago, and his wife, Sondra, died May 18 in a motor vehicle accident on a highway near the village of Chateauroux, about 100 miles south of Paris, France. He was 72 and she was 71.

A rare authority on both the surgical treatment of congenital heart disease in children and of complex heart disease in adults, Karp helped start the heart transplant program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, one of the first in the country, in 1981. He performed 18 heart transplants there before moving to the University of Chicago in 1983, where he started the heart transplant program in June 1984. It is now the biggest such program in Illinois.

He was also known as a leading expert on the treatment of Tetralogy of Fallot (a complex cluster of inborn cardiac abnormalities), surgical treatment of arrhythmias, heart valve repair and replacement, and post-operative care of cardiac surgery patients. At the University of Chicago, he founded one of the first human tissue banks, collecting and storing human heart valves and blood vessels for surgical use.

"Bob Karp brought a structured, evidence-based approach to cardiac surgery that was unusual at the time," said Mark Ferguson, MD, professor of surgery at the University of Chicago. "He kept one entire wall of his office filled with notebooks on cases and selected studies that met his level of expertise and he used them to plan all of his procedures. He was also extremely erudite. He knew literature and art and, beneath a somewhat gruff exterior, had a wonderful sense of humor."

"Bob combined a rigorous, disciplined surgical approach with intense devotion to his patients," said Bruce Gewertz, MD, chairman of surgery at the University, "and he dressed that intensity in the garb of the old-time cardiac surgeon, someone who was always in charge, knew what he wanted from colleagues and subordinates and how to make certain that happened."

Karp could be "gruff and rough, and that sometimes got him in trouble," said Nicholas Kouchoukos, .D, a friend since their residency years at UAB, now a cardiovascular surgeon at Missouri Baptist Medical Center in St. Louis. "But it was a façade. Once you got past that veneer, he was a teddy bear underneath."

Born February 6, 1934, in Los Angeles, Robert Bruce Karp grew up in southern California, where his father was head of the studio at Paramount Pictures. He was a standout in academics and sports, playing quarterback for the Beverly Hills High School. He earned his bachelor of science degree from Stanford University in three years, graduating at the age of 20 in 1954. He earned his medical degree with honors from the University of California at San Francisco in 1958. He completed two years of a surgical residency at the University of California at Los Angeles, followed by two years as a captain in the U.S. Army (1960-62), then four more years as a surgical resident and then chief resident at UCSF. In 1969 he completed a two-year residency in thoracic and cardio-vascular surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

In 1961, while he was in the Army, Karp married Sondra Price, also of Los Angeles. They had twins, Andrew and Gillian, in 1962. They divorced two years later. The children stayed with their mother in Malibu, California. Seventeen years later, however, both parents got back together and soon thereafter remarried.

"Mom was much more social," said Andrew. "She made him pay attention to that stuff."

"His marriage to Soni brought him a vivacious, effervescent and warm partner, someone who could enhance the humanistic qualities of the analytical scientist," said Robert Replogle, MD, who preceded Karp as chief of cardiac surgery at the University of Chicago. "They brought joy to the lives of each other, although--and perhaps because--their personalities were quite different."

Karp joined the faculty at UAB as an assistant professor of surgery in 1969. He was promoted to associate professor in 1971 and professor in 1974. He came to the University of Chicago as section chief of cardiac surgery in 1983 and served in that position for 15 years until he stepped down as section chief in 1998. He retired from the University in 2000.

A prolific researcher and physician, Karp was the author or co-author of nearly 150 journal articles and more than 40 book chapters. He was co-editor in 1970, with his UAB mentor John Kirkland, of a book on The Treatment of Fallot from a Surgical Viewpoint, and in 2003 with four former UAB colleagues of the second edition of Kirklin and Barratt-Boyes' Cardiac Surgery. He lectured on advanced surgical techniques all over the world, served on the editorial boards of leading surgical journals and as editor-in-chief of Advances in Cardiac Surgery and the Journal of Cardiac Surgery. He was a member of various advisory and governing boards for medical and surgical societies, including the American Heart Association and the American Surgical Association.

Karp retired from teaching and from surgery in 2000 and, to indulge his fondness for skiing and fly fishing, moved to Snowmass, Colorado. "He was having a good time," said his son Andrew. " He loved to ski and fish, but after a while he got a little tired of that. It was not enough for him." He remained in contact with his surgical friends, continued to lecture and made several humanitarian trips to India and Pakistan, teaching the latest techniques to surgeons there. A hospital library and pathology museum in Parumala, Kerala, India, is being named after him.

On January 5, 2004, friends on the board recruited Karp to serve as the interim CEO of the financially ailing Aspen Valley Hospital. During 2003, according to local newspaper accounts, Aspen Valley Hospital was "hemorrhaging nearly $1 million a month. Discontent had spread among the hospital staff and through the community." Karp led a team of turnaround experts who redirected and streamlined the institution. By mid-July, Karp was able to announce, "We've managed to stop the ship from sinking." He stayed on through September 2004 and is widely credited with launching a series of changes that "pulled the hospital out of a steep dive."

Although his professional colleagues recall Karp's rigor and intensity, "he was not what you would call a demanding father," said his son Andrew. "He was wise, a good counselor, wonderfully patient with his children's follies, interested in our careers and very involved with his grandchildren."

"They were a lot of fun and really good people on top of that," said their daughter Gillian Karp. "As one of my friends said, 'they were never boring.'"

He is survived by his son, Andrew, 43, of Chicago, a lawyer; daughter, Gillian, also 43, of Alexandria, Virginia, a psychologist; and two grandchildren. A small memorial service is planned for family and close friends in Aspen on June 24. A larger service in Chicago is being arranged for October.

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