Did You Know? The Dutch Airlift of Heart Surgery Patients 

During its early years, THI had an active foreign practice. Dr. Denton A. Cooley was contacted frequently by patients from other countries who needed open heart surgery but who could not afford it, or who were languishing on a long waitlist.

In May 1976, Dutch Heart Patients Association Chairman Henk Fievet and Dutch cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Peter van der Schaar met with Dr. Cooley to discuss the possibility of flying Dutch citizens to THI to undergo open-heart surgery, as a solution to overcoming the backlog of nearly 5,000 heart operations needed in Holland (now the Netherlands) at that time.

After the Dutch government and THI reached an agreement for the operations and travel to cost a modest $10,000 per patient, Dr. Cooley arranged for an estimated 25 Dutch patients per month to undergo heart surgery at THI. Patients were flown to Houston for 2 weeks at a time on a KLM-contracted flight. One family member and sometimes a doctor would accompany the patient for the entire 2 weeks, as well. Over the course of 3 years, roughly 1,500 Dutch patients—both adults and children—underwent heart surgery at THI as part of a program that came to be known as the “Dutch Airlift.

Dr. van der Schaar, who was responsible for running the Dutch Airlift, ultimately took more than 100 trips overseas to accompany heart patients. At that time, as many as 43 heart operations were being performed at THI in a single day; yet, as Dr. van der Schaar noted, “Striking is the efficiency and relaxation with which the work is done. . .It seems to me that the excellent results of this technique lie in the enormous experience and simplicity with which it is worked.” A great admirer of THI, Dr. van der Schaar went on to found a Dutch Heart Center, using THI as the prototype.

[Shown in photo: (left) Dr. Peter van der Schaar, the Dutch cardiovascular surgeon who was a chief figure in establishing and running the Dutch Airlift. (right) One of the KLM-contracted planes used to transport Dutch patients back and forth from Amsterdam to Houston. This photo was taken on the first airlift trip.]