Dr. Richard Lower pioneered perhaps the greatest medical breakthrough of the 20th century, the human-heart transplant, and built the Medical College of Virginia into a powerhouse in the 1960s and ’70s. At one point MCV was one of two hospitals in the world doing heart transplants. But Lower was low-key. He shunned the spotlight.
Lower had always wanted to be a family doctor, so more than 10 years after he retired in 1989 he came back to Richmond to treat the poor and underserved. Almost no one even knew he was here working at CrossOver Ministry’s free clinic on Cowardin Avenue. He preferred obscurity and didn’t mind that most of his patients had no idea they were being treated by Richmond’s greatest surgeon. Many of them didn’t speak English.
At one point, a woman from Guadalajara, Mexico, suffering from pulmonary hypertension came in. Her lips were blue from too little oxygen in her blood. She had a hole in her heart, which was going to kill her. Lower diagnosed the problem and sent her to one of his former students, Dr. James Zocco, a heart surgeon at CJW Medical Center. Zocco thought surgery was too risky. Lower instructed him otherwise. Zocco patched the hole in her heart — pro bono — and the woman lived.
Lower continued to see patients at the clinic until his death in May 2008 from pancreatic cancer. “He is and always will be a historic figure certainly in cardiac surgery,” Zocco told Style Weekly in 2008, “but he walked across the stage and nobody would realize he was even there.”