Main Line thoracic surgeon removed bullet from heart

John B. Flick Jr.
John B. Flick Jr.
Posted: April 08, 2012

In January 1957, Dr. John B. Flick Jr. cut out of the heart of a 9-year-old girl a bullet that had been lodged there for 17 days.

"Doctors said every time her heart beat, the bullet pushed against the wall of the heart," the Evening Bulletin reported.

"In time, they said, it would have worn a hole in the muscle."

Thanks to Dr. Flick, the spent bullet became a belated Christmas present for the girl.

"He followed up on her a couple of years later, and she was doing fine," Dr. Flick's daughter, Louise, said in an interview.

On Saturday, March 24, Dr. Flick, 92, a former Main Line thoracic surgeon, died of complications of melanoma at his home in Wynnewood.

His daughter, a professor of epidemiology at the St. Louis University School of Public Health, said of the operation: "My understanding is it was quite unusual.

"Only a few operations of that kind had been done successfully at that time. Now, I think, there are so many much safer mechanisms to stop the heart that it would be done differently now."

The girl, Beverly Cheek of Atglen, Chester County, had been wounded on Dec. 23, 1956, while visiting grandparents in North Carolina.

Her 8-year-old brother, William, had found a .22-caliber rifle in a closet. When the weapon discharged within a foot of Beverly, the bullet hit her left shoulder, ricocheted into her left jaw, descended behind her breastbone, and found a vein, where the bloodstream carried it to a few inches from her heart.

In early January, after doctors at a North Carolina medical school recommended Dr. Flick, the girl walked into Bryn Mawr Hospital.

X-rays had shown that the bullet was trapped within the heart, in the wall of the right ventricle.

"The surgeon used a technique known as 'purse-string stitching' whereby the stitches were put in first in a circle around the bullet," the newspaper reported.

"Then Dr. Flick cut off the circulation to the ventricle with his fingers, quickly cut out the bullet, and pulled the stitched thread taut to close the wound immediately."

Dr. Flick graduated from Haverford College and from the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical School.

During World War II, Dr. Flick worked on biological research for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. He later served as a shipboard Navy physician.

In 1949 and 1950, he was a surgical resident in Philadelphia, his daughter said, working with Dr. John H. Gibbon "on perfecting the heart-lung machine."

In 1950, Life magazine published a story about that work, with a photo of Dr. Flick.

Dr. Flick entered the Bryn Mawr medical practice of his father, John B. Flick Sr. When his father retired, he continued a solo practice.

When he was 55, Dr. Flick retired from surgical practice and moved to Maine, where he worked in the emergency room of the Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast from 1977 into the 1990s.

He had resided in Wynnewood since 1996.

Besides his daughter, Dr. Flick is survived by his wife, Elaine Hassold; son James; and four grandchildren. His first wife, Ruth, died in 1975. He was predeceased by his second wife, Peggy.

Visitation was set from 1 p.m. Friday, April 20, at the old chapel at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, 225 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd, before a 2 p.m. funeral there.


Contact Walter F. Naedele

at 215-854-5607 or wnaedele@phillynews.com.

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