By Kathy Walsh

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – In 1953, she made history at Children’s Hospital Colorado as the first patient ever to have open-heart surgery there. Monday, 67-year-old Christel Walrath returned to Children’s.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Christel asked for the opportunity to see it again and Children’s happily welcomed her.

“I wouldn’t know how to use a stethoscope, frankly,” said Dr. Jim Jaggers, heart surgeon and co-Medical Director at Children’s Heart Institute, as he was giving Christel a tour.

A stethoscope is old school for the state-of-the-art hospital, but listening is how doctors detected the defect in Christel’s heart when she was a baby.

“I have no memory of it at all,” Christel told CBS4 Health Specialist Kathy Walsh.

(credit: Christel Walrath)

(credit: Christel Walrath)

She was Christel Barlow back then. She was 18 months old and living on a ranch in Wyoming. She had an atrial septal defect, a hole between the two heart chambers.

“They said, ‘We think they might be able to help her in Denver,'” she said.

That was 66 years ago. Nurses at Children’s wore crisp white uniforms and medical devices were evolving.

(credit: Children’s Hospital Colorado)

(credit: Children’s Hospital Colorado)

Christel became the first patient to ever have open-heart surgery there. Cardiac surgeon Dr. John Grow had 10 minutes to make the repair while she was under anesthesia and hypothermia, via an ice bath.

“I regret I didn’t get to tell Dr. Grow ‘Thank you.’ It’s amazing!” she said.

(credit: Family of Dr. John Grow)

Grow died in 1996. On Monday, Christel did get to thank his family. Grow’s son, Jim, and two of the doctor’s grandchildren toured the Heart Institute with her.

“Just so proud,” said grandaughter, Megan Graham, choking back tears.

“I wonder what he would think having taken the tour we took today,” said Jim Grow.

Christel called it awesome.

“Lots of different things we have now, you didn’t have then,” explained Jaggers.

(credit: CBS)

Christel met a staff member in the Cardiac ICU, Kayla Karner, who also had open-heart surgery there. And Christel, was made an honorary member of the Cardiac Climber Team.

Open-heart surgery never limited Christel. She exercises every day, plays tennis, runs half marathons and even scuba dives.

Decades ago, Children’s did Christel’s heart good. Seeing the hospital in today’s day and age filled it with gratitude.

Kathy Walsh


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