In the fall of 1951, at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana, three babies were born with spina bifida — a birth defect that features an incomplete closure of the spine and the membranes surrounding it. In most cases, the spinal cord protrudes from the baby’s lower back, but in its rarest form the protrusion occurs at the neck.
In those days, such babies were simply left to die. One of the hospital’s surgeons, Dr Robert Heimburger, was ready to end that practice and decided to operate on all three infants in an attempt to correct the problem and give those three human beings a chance to live. Tragically, one infant died during the operation. The second operation was successful and the girl lived 14 years, albeit in a wheelchair.
The third infant had the rarer form of the defect. Heimburger and his team had to slice open the baby’s neck from the back of one ear to the other, repair the spine, and put the baby back together. The operation was successful.
The boy spent the first ten years of his life having no idea what he had been through or that he had undergone surgery. It wasn’t until a friend asked about the scar on the back of his head that he was even aware of the scar. He asked his parents about it. They told him nothing more than that he had an operation when he was a baby and everything was fine.
He grew up like any other child and wanted to be a painter like his mother. There was no money for art school, so he fell back on music, playing in cover bands and writing “awful” songs.
Music turned out to be his career, though he spent most of his time touring plagued by anxiety attacks and agoraphobia. He described his daily routine while on tour as “throwing up and then having to walk for two to three hours to work off the anxiety.” Only then was he able to walk on stage.
He was 62 years-old when he finally met the doctor who saved his life. Heimburger was 97 years-old at the time. He showed his patient the photos of him as a baby with what looked to be a man’s fist sticking out of his infant body’s neck. The photos shocked the man and caused him to nearly vomit. The man said that he wished someone had told him earlier so he could have known how incredibly fortunate he was to have lived such a long life and have had the success he has had throughout his career. When the doctor and patient sat down to talk, the doctor simply told the man that he had to have faith.
The baby’s name was John Mellencamp.