Durham County

Life Stories: Medical skill and compassion marked Merel Harmel’s career

Dr. Merel Harmel was just 11 months into his medical residency at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center when he was asked to do the impossible.

No one had ever attempted open-heart surgery on a baby, and he was tapped as the anesthesiologist for the procedure.

For what is now known as the “blue baby” operation, it was Harmel who sat at the head of the bed, keeping the child anesthetized and alive as doctors Helen B. Taussig and Alfred Blalock performed the world’s first palliative surgery for a child born with severe heart defects. It was 1944, and they were repairing a congenital heart defect, known as tetralogy of Fallot, that robbed the blood of oxygen.

The surgery was a success, and from that point Harmel pushed anesthesiology, formerly considered a subset of surgery, into its own field. He became the first anesthesiology resident at Johns Hopkins, and went on to found three anesthesia departments at hospitals around the country.

Harmel, 97, died in February. He finished out his career as chief of the Duke University School of Medicine Anesthesiology Department. He was as much identified as a family man as he was for medical greatness.

“One of the last living connections to one of the 20th century’s most important medical achievements was severed on February 19th with the death of Dr. Merel Harmel,” said Dr. Edward C. Halperin, a former Duke colleague. “The passing of Merel Harmel is worth our notice and respect.”

A cardiac pioneer

Harmel was born in Cleveland and raised in New York. He initially studied to be a surgeon, but developed inflammatory bowel disease and was funneled towards anesthesiology, a specialty that would be far less demanding on his body.

Even 60 years later, intrigue still surrounded the risks Harmel and his colleagues were willing to take. In 2004, the HBO network made a film about the blue baby operation called “Something the Lord Made.”

“The idea that you would voluntarily take a kid to the operation room to do this was revolutionary,” said Halperin, radiation oncologist and chancellor and CEO of New York Medical College. “It was the first successful elective surgery on the human heart of the modern era.”

It took people such as Harmel not only to be asked to attempt such procedures, but also to be willing to undertake them. There were numerous doctors who refused even to observe the surgery, should their presence at what they presumed would be a failed attempt taint their careers.

Harmel seemed less concerned with prestige, and more concerned with patient care, a trait that never waned. When Halperin first worked with Harmel, it took quite a while for Halperin to realize who Harmel was, given the deference with which he addressed his colleagues, both seasoned and novice. They worked together on radiation therapy for pediatric patients at Duke.

“He never called attention to himself. He was taking care of the children,” Halperin said. Though he did have a knack for bedecking himself.

“Other than seeing Cary Grant sport the outfit in the movies, Merel Harmel was the only man I ever saw wear a blue blazer and an ascot, and look perfectly natural doing so,” Halperin said.

‘Urbane and elegant’

Harmel was married to his first wife, Armide Elizabeth Chilcoat Harmel, for more than 40 years, raising four daughters. His children remember him as a father who told good stories on long car rides and had a strong wit.

“Even though he worked very hard, he was someone who would do things around the house,” said his daughter Priscilla Harmel.

He brought the same sensibility to his professional life. Dr. Kathryn E. McGoldrick, chair of anesthesiology at New York Medical College, met Harmel as a member of the Academy of Anesthesiology. He took the time to learn about people’s families and knew their children’s names.

“We admired him because he was such an outstanding human being,” she said. “He had a little twinkle in his eye, and he was very urbane and elegant.”

It was that twinkle that won over his second wife, Ernestine (Friedl) Harmel, the first female dean of Arts and Sciences and Trinity College at Duke University. They enjoyed 24 years together, traveling extensively and holding hands.

“He was charismatic. He had a great sense of humor. He was an extraordinarily kind person,” Ernestine Harmel said. “He was respected not only as a friend, but also in his profession. And he was fun to be with.”

Harmel was ill much of the last few years while battling kidney cancer, but he stayed positive.

“He never thought about dying,” Priscilla Harmel said. “He was a doctor in his nineties and he never thought about dying. And that’s the way he lived his life.”

Dr. Merel Hilber Harmel

Born: May 19, 1917.

Family: Married Armide Elizabeth Chilcoat Harmel in 1944; daughters Nancy Henze, Courtney Harmel, Priscilla Harmel, and Mary Louise Harmel; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Widowed in 1988, and marries Ernestine Friedl in 1990.

Education: undergratudate degreee from Johns Hopkins University, then graduates from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1943.

Career: Serves as anesthesiologist in the groundbreaking blue baby surgery while a resident at Johns Hopkins. Works at the University of Pennsylvania, and founds anesthesia departments at State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center, and the University of Chicago, finishing his career as chair of the new Department of Anesthesiology at Duke University from 1971 to 1983.

Dies: Feb. 19, in Chapel Hill.