Dr. Rolf M. Gunnar died after a battle with Cancer. The Chicago medical community and the world lost a compassionate, and brilliant man.
I met Dr. Gunnar when I was an intern at Cook County Hospital in 1966. My resident, Julio Ortiz, MD, learned of my passion for cardiology and so invited me to go with him on Friday afternoons to Cardiology/ECG/VCG conferences, at the Heart Center in the Durand Building. At the time, Julio and I were on the Northwestern service at “County”. Dr. Gunnar was on the U of I service, but more importantly was with John Tobin, of the Loyola service, the co-head of the Cardiology section. There were other luminaries in medicine surgery and other specialties at “County” and in the West Side Medical Center.
As I was finishing my medicine rotation, Dr. Gunnar stopped me one day in the cafeteria at Karl Meyer Hall and asked if I might want to be his fellow in shock research after my residency in medicine. I had a friend in Vancouver who had done shock work himself and because of him, shock became my over riding passion.
I outlined the reasons why I would have to leave Chicago for a couple of years: First, I would need to do a medical residency before becoming a Cardiology Fellow – Dr. Gunnar said, “Don’t worry, we’ll look after that. I can get you into the U of I program”; Secondly, my “green card” was only for one year, my internship, and so I would have to go back to Canada to renew it – Dr. Gunnar said, “Don’t worry, we’ll look after that”. There may have been a couple of other “Don’t worry, …’s”. So I stayed in Chicago to continue my training as an internist and a cardiologist. While I was doing my medicine residency, I contracted Tb from doing CPR on a patient at the West Side VA Hospital. That was before I had any health insurance, and certainly no unemployment insurance. When I told Dr. Gunnar that I wasn’t going to be able to leave my apartment to work and so would not have any income, again he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll look after that”, and he did.
By that time he had developed a great division of Cardiology at the U of I and Cook County Hospital. He brought Willard Harris, MD, a basic researcher who also did research into Systolic Time Intervals to help non invasively evaluate Left Ventricular Function. He hired John Naughton, MD who did research into exercise testing and training as well as Cardiac Rehabilitation. Dr. Gunnar had also brought Shahbudin Rahimtoola, MD as a general cardiologist and researcher and Kenneth Rosen, MD one of the first cardiologists to do intracardiac diagnostic studies (The “His Bundle Study”) to the Cook County section of Cardiology.
Dr. Gunnar left “County” and the U of I and went to Loyola in 1970. I wanted to follow him, but he asked me to stay at U of I and work with Ray Pietras, MD who became head of cardiology in the division that Dr. Gunnar had built. I stayed for 4 years. Then I went to Illinois Masonic Hospital to apply my skills as a shock researcher and intensivist. My career diverged from Dr. Gunnar’s then, but not his influence. I always kept a picture of him in my office, watching over everything I did. I never wanted to disappoint him! I like to think that he did watch over almost everything I did in medicine.
When I asked him for a recommendation for fellowship in the American College of Cardiology, he was supportive – after I made a contribution to the ACC Heart House development fund. He was always a little impish like that. Like many of the rest of us who were at his 90th birthday party in January, 2016, I have myriad stories about his sense of humor and his drive to make us all better.
Dr. Gunnar influenced many young people in cardiology and academic medicine. He was gender blind – many of his trainees were women in a time when women often couldn’t get academic training. He continued to fine tune his skills as an amazing teacher. He heard things on cardiac auscultation that almost no one else could hear. He claimed his hearing was more accurate than a phonocardiogram, because he knew that a phonocardiogram could be manipulated.
From his early days at County, he believed that Chicago could and should be a renowned center of medical research and training, as it had been in the early 20th century. He organized the Chicago Cardiology Group. Many of the first meetings were held at the Swedish Club of Chicago on North LaSalle St where, as a member, he was well known and respected. Subsequently the meetings moved to the Rush Professional Building, Suite 500. He had hoped that by getting the cardiologists and their fellows together there would be cross-fertilization of thought, and perhaps there would be development of multicenter studies done in Chicago institutions. Later, when he was Governor of the American College of Physicians for Illinois, he tried to get the Chiefs of Medicine together for breakfast meetings to discuss common problems both administrative and academic. Again, he tried to engender cooperation. When the Chicago Heart Association tried to establish the Inter Institutional Cardiovascular Center, Dr. Gunnar was an ardent supporter. I think that he was disappointed that members of the Chicago medical community couldn’t be as collegial and cooperative as they may have been when he was in practice with his father, Dr. Herman P. Gunnar. RMG told me a story about how he tried to set up a CCU at McNeil Hospital in the early 1960s, but the practicing physicians there didn’t want RMG “stealing” or treating their patients. I wonder whether this was not in fact a presage of what was to come, with physicians not trusting each other and not wanting to work together?
Dr. Rolf Gunnar loved medicine. After his internship at Cook County from 1949-1950, and after his military service in Korea, he practiced with his father, Herman P. Gunnar, until he went to Boston to train in Cardiology. After that he returned and again practiced with his father, doing Medicine and Cardiology at McNeil Hospital in Berwin, before he became full time at Cook County. He published at least 3 papers with his father in 1962 & 1963 and subsequently began researching with Cook County associates again. The first papers from Cook County were done in collaboration on with Rimgaudas Nemickas and John Sutton in 1964.
Dr. Gunnar was always open to trying to improve Cardiology in Chicago. Dr. Joseph V. Messer recounted a time when Dr. Gunnar was trying to recruit him to improve the practice of cardiology at the Hines VA hospital and brought Dr. Messer to Chicago for an interview. At the time he knew that Theodore Schwartz, MD was looking for a Chief of Cardiology at Rush. Dr. Messer came to Chicago to look at Dr. Gunnar’s VA position. Dr. Gunnar invited Drs. Messer and Schwartz join him for dinner. Even though Dr. Messer eventually went with Rush. Dr. Gunnar, I am sure, felt that he had done the right thing by getting Dr. Messer to come and help lead the Chicago cardiology community.
I was once taken aback to learn that such a compassionate, sensitive man was a Republican (it was just after the Goldwater era). I believe that he may have been the first to tell me something to the sense of, “If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head.”. Dr. Gunnar certainly had both a heart and a head.