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Nebraska Stephens, pioneering technician who kept patients alive during early days of cardiac surgery at Sacred Heart, dies at 90

Spokesman-Review - 8/14/2022

Aug. 14—In the groundbreaking early days of Sacred Heart Medical Center's cardiac care, Nebraska Stephens was often the man behind the machine who kept the patient alive on the table.

Stephens, a Georgia-born veteran of the U.S. Air Force who went from working in an iron foundry to serving alongside a trailblazing team of Spokane cardiac surgeons who performed the first reported emergency bypass surgery for a heart attack victim, died July 27 from complications of COVID-19 and other medical issues. He was 90.

"He used to bring home pictures," said Donricco Stephens, Nebraska Stephens' son, in an interview last week. "We were like, 'Dad, what are you doing?' He talked about it, but not really in detail."

Photos of him made their way into the pages of The Spokesman-Review at least twice over the years, including in April 1969, when a headline proclaimed that Nebraska Stephens' mechanical knowledge was "vital in surgery." As the operator of the heart-lung machine, what's known in the medical field as a perfusionist, Stephens was responsible for ensuring the flow of oxygen and blood while a patient was undergoing a procedure, including when the breast plate was opened and the heart exposed.

The heart-lung machine acts as both organs while the patient is under anesthesia and damage to the heart is repaired. The technician is also responsible for cooling and warming the blood temperature as the surgeons work. The patient's blood leaves the body through tubes, to be oxygenated in the machine and pumped back to the organs that need it.

"You have to know what you're doing," Stephens told an interviewer in 1969. "You have to be sure of yourself. It takes a lot of research and reading to know how to handle the specialized equipment."

Donricco Stephens said his dad never told him the reason for his unique first name. There were no family ties to the state, nor did any other family member share the name "Nebraska."

"I'll tell you what my dad told me, that his mother just named him 'Nebraska,' " Donricco Stephens said.

Nebraska Stephens learned the trade from Donna Larson, a scrub nurse for heart surgeon Dr. Ralph Berg, part of the early cardiac care team at Sacred Heart. Larson was one of about 50 people who attended Stephens' memorial at the Washington State Veteran's Cemetery in Medical Lake on Friday afternoon, where the Air Force and Air National Guard veteran was laid to rest with full military honors.

"He was a great guy," Larson said. "Everybody loved him."

Stephens went on to pass down his knowledge, demonstrating the equipment to the public and training future perfusionists at the hospital over his career.

He came to Spokane by way of Goose Bay in Labrador, Canada, he told the paper. He'd signed up for the Air Force in 1953, after working at an iron foundry in Philadelphia, where his brother lived. In 1956, he was moved to Fairchild Air Force Base, and began working at the installation's dispensary.

"I became interested in medicine because I liked to dissect things," Stephens said in the 1969 interview. "I always got my best grades in biology."

After his discharge from the Air Force in 1962, obtaining the rank of master sergeant, Stephens went to work one year at the University of Pennsylvania.

He returned to Spokane in 1963 to work at Sacred Heart, which was in the early days of developing new surgery techniques and theories about heart attacks and other ailments. The hospital had purchased its first heart-lung machine seven years prior, and it had been four years since the medical center's first open heart surgery.

During that time, Stephens also taught cardio-pulmonary students at Spokane Community College while joining the Washington Air National Guard .

In March 1971, a team of Sacred Heart surgeons performed what is believed to be the first bypass surgery for a patient suffering a heart attack. Dr. John Ganji, one of the physicians on that team, confirmed Stephens was the pump technician for that procedure, which changed the way heart attack patients are cared for around the world.

"In the beginning, it was very hard," Ganji said. "There weren't many people doing it."

Ganji said Stephens would also operate the machine on dogs, when the surgeons and doctors were practicing techniques and conducting research in the lab.

"He was a great guy. He did everything correctly," Ganji said.

It was at the hospital that Stephens met his second wife, Cathy, who was a nurse studying at Washington State University. They were introduced by her nursing instructors, Cathy Stephens said, and she asked to observe more of his open-heart surgeries.

"We got married the day before his birthday, and he chose that," Cathy Stephens said.

Later, when the hospital began performing transplant procedures, his schedule filled up, Cathy Stephens said. The hospital allowed Nebraska Stephens, who also went by Steve, to park his motor home in the parking lot.

"Thank goodness, they realized how much he was working," she said. "And Steve got to come home, and it was wonderful."

In photos around the time, Stephens, a Black man, can be seen with a surgical team that was almost exclusively white. Donricco Stephens said his father never spoke of any discrimination in the medical field in Spokane, despite his early career in the industry occurring during the height of the civil rights movement.

"As far as I knew, my dad never had any racial problems," Donricco said. "He never talked about it to us."

He did, however, have to deal with segregation in housing, his son said. The airman and medical professional looked for homes on Spokane's South Hill, but was unable to secure an agent or seller because of his skin color. Redlining prohibited selling homes to Black buyers there, and Stephens ending up buying a house near Minnehaha Park in northeast Spokane without the assistance of an agent. They wouldn't work with him because of his skin color, his son said.

"He had to actually find that house by himself," Donricco Stephens said.

After pursuing his own career in the Army, Donricco Stephens returned to Spokane a few years ago to care for his father, who by that time had retired from his medical career. Nebraska Stephens remained interested in medicine all his life, his son said.

"Up until a month ago, I would say, he'd say, 'Don, bring me a piece of paper or a notepad, I have an idea for a new catheterization procedure,' " Donricco Stephens said.


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