In the spring of 1959, pioneering cardiovascular surgeon Lester R. Sauvage (1926-2015) establishes the Reconstructive Cardiovascular Research Laboratory, precursor to the Hope Heart Institute, in Seattle. Sauvage and others working at the facility will make important contributions to the development of coronary artery bypass surgery, now the most common kind of operation done on the heart.
A native of Wapato, in South Central Washington, Sauvage graduated from the St. Louis University School of Medicine in 1948. He completed surgical residencies at King County Hospital (now Harborview Medical Center) and at the Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, before establishing a practice in cardiovascular surgery in Seattle early in 1959.
Sauvage had become interested in the then-new field of blood vessel grafts as a research fellow at the University of Washington's School of Medicine beginning in 1950, midway through his residency at King County Hospital. His research and his residency were interrupted in 1952, during the Korean War, when he was drafted into the Army Medical Corps.
Expecting to be sent overseas, he was assigned instead to the Division of Experimental Surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he designed and directed a study involving the insertion of venous grafts into the aortas of pigs. The goal was to find better ways to repair blood vessels that had been damaged by gunshot wounds or other injuries. But the results could be applied to diseased arteries as well.
Back in Seattle after completing both his military service and his medical training, Sauvage joined the cardiovascular team at Providence Hospital (now Swedish Medical Center). The hospital was operated at that time by the Sisters of Providence. Sauvage credits the administrator, a Catholic nun named Sister Genevieve, with helping him open his new laboratory, in a small white frame house owned by the Sisters of Providence behind the hospital.
During the next few years, Sauvage conducted hundreds of experiments, primarily on calves and dogs, seeking better surgical solutions to coronary artery disease. Fats, cholesterol, and other substances can build up in the arteries over time, forming deposits ("plaque") on the walls of the arteries. These deposits narrow the passageway and interfere with the flow of blood to the heart, causing pain ("angina") and ultimately damaging the heart muscle.
Sauvage's early research focused on using segments of the saphenous vein (in the leg) to create detours, or bypasses, around obstructions in coronary arteries. Blocked portions of arteries were cut away and the healthy sections reconnected by grafts made from the vein. Later, Sauvage developed artificial grafts, made from Dacron. These proved to be longer-lasting than saphenous grafts, which developed plaque themselves and thus narrowed over time.
By the 1970s, Sauvage's once-modest laboratory had evolved into the Reconstructive Cardiovascular Research Center, financed primarily by grants from private institutions and individuals and by royalties from Sauvage's patents on artificial grafts. In 1980, comedian Bob Hope lent his name to what became known as the Bob Hope International Heart Research Institute.
The association with the entertainer ended in late 1987, but the institute retained the name "Hope," reflecting the belief that "in research, hope is the greatest gift one can give" (The Seattle Times). Today the Hope Heart Institute is one of the leading cardiovascular research and education centers in the Northwest, sponsoring a variety of programs aimed at preventing as well as treating heart disease. It is located at 1710 E Jefferson Street, around the corner from the small white house where Lester Sauvage established his original laboratory.