Last week, musician John Mellencamp welcomed Dr. Robert Heimburger, 97 (pictured, right), at the Indianapolis Riley Hospital for Children to record an interview together for a fundraiser next year. Mellencamp describes this neurosurgeon as “the man who gave me life.” He is responsible for the life-altering surgery performed on the month-old Mellencamp in the fall of 1951. Dr. Heimburger’s two sons brought him from his retirement home in Alabama for this special day.
Dr. Heimburger’s presence in Indianapolis last week excited me, too. He pioneered many surgical procedures in the field of neuroscience throughout his career in Indianapolis and was known internationally. In 1963, he operated on my then 63 year-old great-grandfather Evan Sanderson who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. His daughter Lois Long (my grandmother) had read about a similar surgery performed on the East Coast and suggested it to her father. Sixty-five miles from home, Dr. Heimburger evaluated him in Indianapolis and agreed to attempt a similar procedure. The experimental surgery apparently sought to freeze one part of the brain. After opening Evan’s skull, Dr. Heimburger injected him with a dye as part of the operation. As the dye was injected, Evan began to convulse on the table. He survived, but the procedure was aborted and a substantial recovery period ensued.
In the post-operative meeting, Dr. Heimburger humbly admitted to the family that the mistake was his and apologized. He should have tested Evan with the dye for an allergy in advance. My grandmother, Lois, was most impressed because she had interacted with many doctors by that point in her life and had never heard a doctor admit a mistake - let alone a world-famous neurosurgeon. Naturally, Evan declined further surgery, though Dr. Heimburger later prescribed him an experimental drug that brought some relief from the Parkinson’s. The chapter was closed until…
Two years later, in 1965, Lois and her husband Bill sat in a living room packed with friends for a Bible study in Lafayette, Indiana. They were not Christians. They and their politically ultra-conservative friends had been utterly demoralized by Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election and were looking for hope. The Lord raised up Dr. Roy Blackwood (pictured, left) to tell them where they could find hope. He was pastor of the nearly-new Second Reformed Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis and drove an hour to Lafayette every-other week to lead an evangelistic Bible study for these who were searching for answers. One family involved in the political campaign opened their home, and Roy Blackwood led them through the Gospel of John.
To each study, Dr. Blackwood brought one other Christian from Indianapolis to tell his story of coming to know Jesus. In one of the earliest studies, Bob Heimburger joined him to tell what God had done for him. As he took the floor to speak, Bill and Lois jabbed each other in the ribs and said “That’s him; that’s the doctor who worked on Dad!” Their ears perked up as Bob told how he had grown up in a Presbyterian mission in China but had only in recent years come to a lively faith in Jesus Christ. He had come to see the idolatry in his heart, his nothingness apart from Christ, and his need of a Savior. He trusted Christ, repented of sin, and grew in grace. When he told of Christ's work in his life, Bill and Lois understood that only the grace of God could allow a man of his stature to exercise the humility and integrity they had marveled to see two years earlier in the hospital. My grandparents wanted to be influential in their own community - they had put their hope in politics and they knew the pride that could so easily infect the human heart in the political arena. It was a pride that did not die easily even after a humbling political defeat. Dr. Heimburger’s testimony of integrity, humility, and grace spoke volumes that night and was one key piece in my grandparent’s conversion to Christ shortly thereafter.
My grandmother, Lois, full of faith and hope, could not help but share the good news with her father who had been the victim of Dr. Heimburger's mistake two years earlier. Yes, even Evan Sanderson, who was a spiritually rebellious son of a Presbyterian elder, would repent and call on the name of the Lord as Parkinson’s took his life. He died a peaceful death.
One key lesson is this: Integrity matters. It matters in our professional lives as well as in our personal lives. Proverbs 11:2-3 says “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom. The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.” The humble know that it is only by the grace of God that they are what they are. Dr. Heimburger humbly practiced what he preached. Though his mind is still sharp, he does not remember the details of many of these events. He was a busy surgeon, husband, father, and servant to others. He kept a clear conscience by simply telling the truth about his work, about himself, and about the Lord. In so doing, he not only touched brains; he touched souls. He not only treated temporal diseases; he saw souls healed forever. I am glad that he “gave life” to John Mellencamp in a certain sense. But more than that, I am thankful that God gave life to my family and me partially through the witness of Dr. Heimburger. It is my prayer that many others upon whom he operated will yet hope in Christ.
He also served as a ruling elder at Second Reformed Presbyterian Church for many years; everyone loved him. I have the privilege of serving as pastor at Second RP today. Members say that when he served as an active elder and prayed for church members going into surgery, it was as though he guided the surgeon’s hands with his words, led by the Holy Spirit.
His career spanned decades, and last year he wrote an article titled Reflections on a Career in Neurosurgery for Surgical Neurology International. Though peppered with technical terminology, it is flavored with enough of Dr. Heimburger’s humble, folksy, Midwestern tone to be easily appreciated. In it, you get a sense of the contributions he made to neuroscience, to the pro-life cause, and to exemplary character he displayed in his labor.