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Author Topic: Doctor who saved John Mellencamp's life dies in Birmingham  (Read 1777 times)
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« on: June 11, 2015, 11:33:28 pm »

Doctor who saved John Mellencamp's life dies in Birmingham
By Greg Garrison

The neurosurgeon who saved rock singer John Mellencamp's life as an infant has died in Birmingham, just three months after attending Mellencamp's March 12 concert in Alabama at the singer's invitation.

Dr. Robert Heimburger, 97, died Tuesday, June 9, at his residence, the Somerby at St. Vincent's One Nineteen retirement home in Hoover, Somerby spokeswoman Valerie Boyd confirmed. He was surrounded by family when he died, she said.

Heimburger performed the dangerous surgery on Mellencamp, who was born Oct. 7, 1951, when the future singer was an infant.

Heimburger pioneered surgeries on newborn infants with spina bifida. At the time, it was common to wait six months or longer to see if the child lived before attempting surgery, he said. "I had established a different way of doing surgery," Heimburger said in an interview with

Mellencamp's birth defect on his spinal cord at the back of the neck would likely have been fatal, Heimburger said. Mellencamp was less than six weeks old when he had his surgery. The late Dr. John Russell performed the surgery with him, Heimburger said. "We got rid of it," he said. "I went out to tell the parents how it was going. I did have outpatient visits with him quite often. The Mellencamps were delightful people."

Mellencamp's parents waited years to tell him about his brush with death as an infant.
"Twelve years went by and I was sitting in class and some kid said, 'Hey, John, what's that big pink scar on the back of your neck?" Mellencamp said during his speech at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2008.

Dr. Robert Heimburger talks about lifesaving surgery he performed on John MellencampAlabama resident Dr. Robert Heimburger perfomed a lifesaivng operation on an infant John Mellencamp.

"And I said, 'What scar?' My parents had never told me anything had ever happened to me. I'm lucky. And my Grandma, my entire life, from a little kid until she died, would always come up to me and whisper. She called me Buddy. And she'd go, 'Buddy, you're the luckiest boy in the world.' And I am."

Mellencamp mentioned Heimburger in the speech. "It was a high-risk operation," he said. "It took 18 hours. A young surgeon carefully worked on my spinal cord without damaging it and damaging any of the nerves. And the doctor charged my parents, who didn't have any money, a dollar. I called this guy up, his name is Dr. Heimburger. He's still alive... I talked to him before I came here to get all the details."

In September last year, he met Heimburger in person for the first time since those doctor's visits when he was an infant.

"He remembered it because I was the first one they'd ever done," Mellencamp told Anthony Mason of CBS News, for a segment that aired Oct. 3, 2014 on CBS This Morning.
Mellencamp said he was one of three babies who underwent similar surgeries at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

"They did three operations," Mellencamp said. "One died on the table. Another girl lived I think till she was 14 and then she died. And then me ... So they basically cut my head off from here to here (he points fingers at each side of the front of his neck), laid it open, cut that thing off and then put all the nerves into my spine."

The hospital still has the records of Mellencamp's surgery, with an X-ray that shows a bulging mass at the back of his neck.

"This thing was the size of a man's fist," Mellencamp said. "I'm 62 years old; I just saw for the first time the growth on the back of my neck. It was like, 'Why didn't you guys show this to me earlier? 'Cause I would have seen how lucky I am to even be here. It was like finding out that your parents weren't your parents. It was really an epiphany moment for me. You just couldn't thank the guy enough."

Heimburger said that he was on staff at the time at Indiana University, where he was a longtime chief of neurosurgery. He was on salary and routinely did not charge for surgeries. "When I first started practice, I did not charge pastors, policemen, firemen, military," Heimburger said.
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