08/07/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
His gloves flecked with blood, Dr. O. Wayne Isom leans over the open chest of a 79-year-old woman who has been flown to New York-Presbyterian Hospital from Boca Raton, Fla. "A slip here could be fatal," says Isom, using scalpel and forceps to remove a faulty aortic valve from her heart prior to replacing it with a valve from a pig.
It is a serious moment but apparently not a solemn one. For soon the surgeon is musing, as he often does, about his father. "Years ago," he says, "when I told my dad I was putting pig valves in people, he asked me, 'What do the pigs die of?' I told him they are slaughtered. He thought about this and said, 'How do you know the pig wouldn't have died from valve trouble itself?' "
Isom, 60, credits his father, Ottis, a West Texas farmer, with giving him his can-do, commonsense approach to life. But somebody higher up in the scheme of things must have given him the hands that have inspired many of his colleagues to call him the top heart surgeon in the country. "Wayne Isom is as good as it gets," says Dr. Denton Cooley, 79, the reigning eminence at the Texas Heart Institute of St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston. Chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at Cornell University's Weill Medical College in Manhattan, Isom has become the surgeon of choice for-notables worldwide. He has repaired the hearts of TV personalities Jack Paar, Larry King and Walter Cronkite, musician Isaac Stern, a couple of former Cabinet members and a slew of CEOs and diplomats. Some months ago he performed a quintuple bypass on David Letterman, leading the talk show host to bring Isom's team onto his Late Show. "If you ever have to have this surgery," said Letterman, "by God, I hope you're blessed enough to go through it with people like these."
People tend to get emotional about Isom, for he sees them at their most naked. "I'm eternally grateful to Dr. Isom," says Cronkite. In 1997 the ex-CBS anchorman, now 83, was about to depart for the Far East. when he had a strange sensation in his chest while shaving. He had an angiogram, which revealed blockage. Like everyone else, Cronkite, who feels "just dandy today" after his quadruple bypass, was buoyed by Isom's uncanny calmness. "He and his staff were extremely solicitous," says Cronkite. "I'm always suspicious that celebrities get special attention. But I checked and found out he treats everyone the same way."
Isom says that when he is operating he doesn't know—or care—who is on the table. "Everybody looks alike on the inside," he says. He feels obliged to extend to patients equal amounts of respect and kindness. "It's a scary thing they are going through," he says. "At some point, I see the fabric of their souls."
Heady business for someone who grew up in Idalou, a West Texas hamlet of 500 souls that has recently boomed to 2,000. His father, Ottis, who died two years ago at 92, grew cotton and corn in the semiarid soil of the Texas Panhandle. Isom's mother, Georgia, died in 1953 during a blood transfusion while being readied for surgery. "It was really sad," says Isom, who was 13 at the time, "because my parents worked hard and they were just starting to get comfortable."
Ottis had just a sixth-grade education, but he was clearly someone special. Shrewd and industrious, he gave his boys—Wayne has an older brother, Bruce, now 71 and still working the farm—daily lessons in self-reliance. "When I was 12," says Isom, "my dad gave me five acres and told me I could have the money I made with it. At 13, I got a neighbor to rent me another 30 acres. I made a great crop of cotton and maize. At 14, I bought a fancy Chevrolet, then a boat with a 25-horsepower engine. Then I wanted to learn to fly, and I got my father and brother to see the use in it—we were also in the sheep business in Colorado. So we chipped in and bought a four-seat single-engine plane. But I had to wait until I was 17 to get my pilot's license."
There were only 30 kids in Isom's graduating class at Idalou High. A top athlete, Isom was also the resident brain. But he knew that college—Texas Tech University in Lubbock—wasn't going to be easy. "I was insecure because I came from a rural school," he says. "I remember going to chemistry class. It was a refresher for the kids from Dallas, but it was all new to me. I had to study like crazy." He also had to work. In exchange for room and board, he toiled in a clinic as a lab tech. "I'd arrive at 5:30 for the meal," he says. "I had to study between 6:30 and 10, because I'd be up all night drawing blood."
After graduating in three years, Isom went to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, from which he emerged in 1965—again at the top of his class. He did his internship and his residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital from 1965 to 1970. Then he accepted a fellowship at the New York University Medical Center. "I didn't really want to come to New York," he recalls. "My boss at Parkland said, 'Spend a couple of years up there and we'll bring you back as chairman of surgery.' I thought, 'I can stand anything for two years.' Well, I'm still here."
Isom had married college sweetheart Pam Hearn in 1961. They have three children together: Mark, now 36 and a Minneapolis TV producer; Elizabeth, 32, a Dallas homemaker; and Chris, 28, a Manhattan Web-page designer. But the pair divorced in 1990, and a year later Wayne married former nurse Pat Hoey, 47, with whom he has two kids: Jack, 8, and Catherine, 6. Today the Isoms live in a comfortable four-bedroom apartment adjacent to Cornell Medical Center. Living next to the hospital, says Pat, "gives me a chance to see Wayne more. But it's hard to make plans. It's hard to compete with heart surgery."
Though Isom is in big demand, he doesn't say no to anyone because of their circumstances. But there have been exceptions. Australian media magnate Kerry Packer, 62, contacted Isom two years ago. "He'd had surgery 10 years before," says Isom. "His vessels were closing, his mitral valve was leaking. He had one kidney and was on dialysis. He had a history of smoking five packs a day and wanted me to come down and operate." The money Packer offered, says Isom, "took my breath away. I had to say I'd call him back."
When he did, Isom told Packer the surgery wasn't worth doing—especially if it had to be done in Australia without his team. "I said, 'If I fly down, you've got an 80 percent chance of dying. If you come here, your chances are 50-50.' " Isom did the surgery in Manhattan in 1998. "Kerry has done extremely well," says Isom of the high-living tycoon. "His mitral valve is working okay."
Boris Yeltsin was another matter. The CIA, says Isom, asked him to go to Russia in 1996 and do bypass surgery there. Again, Isom wouldn't go without his team; he wanted Yeltsin to come here. "But they said he couldn't," says Isom, "because politically it would look bad, like their doctors weren't good enough." That was the end of that. Isom did operate some years earlier, though, on the Soviet ambassador to Beijing—and it gave him a chance to do something for Ottis.
When the grateful ambassador offered the surgeon a free trip to Russia, Isom took his father with him. At one point, after a wild boar hunt, says Isom, the ambassador asked Ottis what he thought of Mother Russia: "Dad said, 'It's a beautiful country. What I don't understand is, you have these big stores, but there are no clothes in them, no food on the shelves. You've got these farms, but the wheat is falling down and the potatoes have gone unharvested. Tell you what—you boys let me take over and I'll straighten it all out for you inside 12 years....' "
At age 60, Isom has no plans to retire. He thinks, however, that heart surgeons may well be a vanishing species. "If we make the advances in gene therapy that I think we will," he says with a laugh, "it'll probably put me out of business." And if it does? "Well, I could go back to Idalou and farm." Really? "Sure. I like seeing things grow. Sometimes at night you can almost hear the cotton coming up. You see the cattle come into this world and thrive, and you know you had something to do with it. It's the same feeling you get with medicine. I don't watch TV that much, but it gives me pleasure just knowing Larry King is still there. Yeah, I could do that. I could go home and farm."