How One Doctor Gave Life to Many and How One of Those People Made That Life Worth Living - Part One

On this Mother's Day, we begin a six-part series of news columns that detail the human side of the heart surgeries that took place in the 1950's. How one doctor gave life to many and how one of those people made that life worth living. How that one person - as mother-to-be and then as a mother - was used as an example to nurses of the future that had arrived in Philadelphia. Nurses General Nursing Article

How One Doctor Gave Life to Many and How One of Those People Made That  Life Worth Living - Part One

Ten years ago, a woman died in Norristown, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

She had lived in an adjacent municipality, Plymouth Township, for more than 46 years.

Beyond an obituary notice, there wasn’t much attention to the death at that time.

Fifty-eight years ago, a man died in Lower Merion Township, also in suburban Philadelphia.

Obituaries of his death appeared in newspapers from Omaha to the City of New York and from Winnipeg to Tucson.

But few remember that man today.


Alice Marie McDonough, at the far right in this photograph, and James Walter McDonough, at the far left, husband and wife, are seen here at the Glen-Nor High School Class of 1943 Reunion in Chester, Pennsylvania, in June of 1956.

On this Mother’s Day, perhaps you’d join with me in reflecting – not on those deaths, but on the lives of those two people: A woman who helped make a tremendous difference not only in the lives of her family, but in the lives of countless others who are alive today because of sacrifices by her and others like her. And a man who sacrificed much to give life to that woman and to others like her who had previously been destined to die young.

My mother, Alice Marie (Swift) McDonough, was laid to rest in September of 2009.

Her funeral was similar to what you would see with other families raised in Irish traditions. Tears flowed, but the real tears were reserved for the privacy of our homes. While sad in some respects, an Irish funeral is more a celebration of a life rather than the mourning of a death.

This was even more so for my mother.

Her death was a blessing. She was able to go home.

We know that she is no longer suffering physically.

She no longer cries out to God in her sleep.

By all accounts, she should have died many years earlier – in 1952 or in 1958. Not in 2009.

You see, Alice McDonough was likely one of the oldest survivors of the pioneering heart surgeries of the 1950’s. She was 26 years old at the time of the first surgery; 32 years old at the time of the second surgery.

She was 83 years old when she died in 2009.

She had explained to us that she was in a tunnel of light in 1958. The voices of her relatives were calling her to come forward. But she was pulled back. By Dr. Robert P. Glover and a team of doctors, nurses, and technical people who put their lives on the line to save Alice McDonough and people like her.

The life of Alice McDonough was a testament to life itself.

She was one of the “guinea pigs” (that was the term she used to describe herself) for medical science in the 1950’s. Philadelphia was a center of medical research and experimental surgical procedures for cardiac care at that time.

Born with a heart that had a hole that was about the size of a half-dollar coin, Alice Swift knew her life was likely limited. As a young girl in Chadwicks, New York, and later, in Taylor, Pennsylvania, she was excused from physical education classes in school. Her body could not withstand the physical risks of participating in gym class.

At that time in America, people like her typically died at young ages.

She – and her family – lived with that prospect every day.

But while she was one of the weakest people you would likely ever meet, she was also likely one of the strongest people you would ever encounter.

Weak – very weak – physically.

Strong – extremely strong – spiritually and mentally.

She was a stubborn woman. And proud of it. Vindictive at times. Opinionated always.

Without any doubt, it was that strong will of hers that kept her alive all those years.

She was willing to learn and educate herself about whatever issue on which she wanted to focus.

Her stubborn streak would, on occasion, give her the knowledge of facts even if those facts were not exactly correct.

For much of her life, she was able to will herself to achieve her goals.

In the last few years of her life, though, it became more difficult for her.

The physical toll on her body was relentless.

In those last few years, she needed help to breathe and she needed help to walk.

She was stubborn. Though she needed oxygen to breathe, she initially did not want to wear the oxygen tubing. We had to remind her to put the tubing in her nose.

We eventually did not have to remind her. She would remind us.

She was stubborn. Though she had trouble walking, she initially did not want to use a walker. She would hang clothing on the walker placed next to her bed. After a time, she would use the walker every so often. Near the end, she used the walker all of the time.

We eventually did not have to remind her. She would remind us.

I know through the years that as doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals would examine my mother, a number of them would express surprise that I and others in the family would not be alarmed when they would tell us how bad her heart sounded or that her lungs were in bad shape.

They would then listen to her stories and realize that this was our normal.

That she – and we – lived with the possibilities of death every day.

Not dwelling on those possibilities, but instead, living with the potential for life.


Part Two of this series of news columns will detail the life-saving surgeries that made my mother’s life possible.

To read the entire story, please go to:

How One Doctor Gave Life to Many and How One of Those People Made That Life Worth Living - Part One

Life-Saving Surgeries: A Woman from Chadwicks - Part Two

Dr. Robert P. Glover - the Surgeon Who Saved My Mother's Life with Pioneering Heart Surgery - Part Three

Blood of Chester, Norristown, and Coatesville: A Woman from Chadwicks - Part Four

Blood and the United States Army: A Woman from Chadwicks - Part Five

Facing Evil: A Woman from Chadwicks - Part Six

If you have a question or a suggestion for a news column on nursing, please contact Richard McDonough at [email protected].

Your question or suggestion may be used in a future news column.


To read the continuing story go to:

Life-Saving Surgeries: A Woman from Chadwicks - Part Two

© 2019 Richard McDonough

Richard McDonough is a freelance journalist whose work has been published in a number of digital news sites, newspapers, and magazines in the United States and in Europe. He’s also broadcast business news for a television station. Mr. McDonough was honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews with the Gold Medallion Mass Media Award for outstanding contributions to better human relations and the cause of brotherhood. One of the approaches utilized by Mr. McDonough is civic journalism. The concept includes investigative efforts showing people how to solve civic problems and enhance civic opportunities. Several key elements include presenting the facts in a way that provide context to each situation; going to the original source for information, when and where possible; not presenting both sides of an issue, but instead, presenting all sides of an issue – whether that be 2 sides or 17 sides; and attributing all key facts to specific sources. A portfolio of his work can be viewed at TwoCents.News. Mr. McDonough has been active in charitable activities throughout the United States. His charitable efforts have been recognized by two Presidents and two national non-profit organizations. Mr. McDonough can be reached directly at [email protected]​​​​​​​.

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Specializes in Adult Primary Care.

Thank you, I'm looking forward to part two!

Specializes in Vents, Telemetry, Home Care, Home infusion.

Welcome to allnurses....Great article!!!

I've lived in Philadelphia suburbs since mid 50's. As a '73 graduate of Interboro HS (merger of Glen-Nor with other area schools) and nurse practicing in the Philadelphia area 40+ years, grown up with the tremendous medical advances in medical care, Cardiac and Transplant surgery developed in Philly. Early focus of my nursing career was caring for those on a Respiratory/Telemetry unit, providing nursing care to ventilator dependent patients, helping many to be weaned from the vent and return home, especially at the start of the AIDS epidemic. Looking forward to learning more about your mother's pioneering cardiac surgery.

Don't know if you had seen this picture:

Presbyterian Medical Center Department of Cardiology, Dr. Robert P. Glover, M.D. 1939 consults with unidentified nurse


Specializes in Med-Surg, Geriatrics, Wound Care.

My grandfather was a doctor at that time. But, I think I was told he "had a hole in his heart" from Rheumatic fever. Heart surgeries were just starting, and I think my grandfather was planning on having surgery, but didn't make it. Though I never met him, his death instilled the importance of stuff like vaccines and antibiotics.

Specializes in ICU/community health/school nursing.

Amazing story. Thank you for sharing.

Love the story and will look out for part two

Specializes in Peds, Med-Surg, Disaster Nsg, Parish Nsg.
5 hours ago, VCstudent said:

Love the story and will look out for part two

The story continues. Be sure to read:

Life-Saving Surgeries: A Woman from Chadwicks - Part Two