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Saving a Sculptor’s Life With Art and Science

Renowned Sculptor Richard Hunt Benefits From Creative, World-Class Cardiovascular Care

Richard Hunt, 86, puts his heart into his art. As one of the most influential Black sculptors of the 20th century, he was the first to have a major exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City in 1971. His career spans almost 70 years, and his abstract, modern and contemporary sculptures are in more than 100 public museums throughout the U.S. He has created more public sculptures than any other sculptor in the U.S. — 150 to be exact.

Richard has led a life marked by creativity and innovation, two characteristics he found in the cardiovascular surgery team at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute that saved his life.

From the Studio to the Operating Room

When Richard was working on three large art pieces for important events, including the Ida B. Wells National Monument, he faced a life-threatening cardiovascular emergency: an acute Type A aortic dissection, or a tear in his aorta, which is the largest artery in the body.

"Richard had a life-threatening emergency," says Northwestern Medicine Cardiac Surgeon Christopher K. Mehta, MD. "An aortic dissection is a ticking time bomb since patients are at risk for a fatal aortic rupture."

Richard needed emergency surgery. When a CT scan revealed that he not only had a Type A aortic dissection, but he also had active bleeding around his brain, likely from a recent fall in his studio, his surgical team had to get creative. The surgery to repair the aortic dissection normally would require open-heart surgery during which the patient is temporarily placed on a machine that does the work of the heart and lungs, oxygenating the blood as the surgical team works on the heart. But being on this machine requires the use of blood-thinner medication. In Richard's case, the medication would make the bleeding around Richard's brain worse and could be life-threatening.

A Creative Solution

Dr. Mehta and Heron E. Rodriguez, MD, a vascular surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, came up with an innovative solution: Instead of an open-heart surgery to repair the tear in Richard's aorta, they used a minimally invasive endovascular procedure. Using a live X-ray to guide them, the surgical team threaded an endovascular stent-graft, or a fabric tube with a metal frame around it, through an artery in Richard's groin up into his heart. The stent reinforced his aortic wall and prevented a rupture.

"At Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, we try to think outside the box, especially for patients who have particularly challenging problems," says Dr. Mehta. "We use this method for other cardiovascular issues, but we typically don't use it in cases like Richard's."

It worked.

A Return to Form

Richard Hunt at his studio in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Richard Hunt at his studio in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Richard began his recovery with one goal in mind: Regaining the upper-body strength and core stability he needed to pound and shape his intricate metal sculptures.

Richard invited Dr. Mehta to his studio in Lincoln Park to see the progress he had made since his surgery. To see more of Richard's work, Dr. Mehta took his family to see Richard's sculpture exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

"It was a very proud moment for me because I was able to show my daughter all of Richard's life's work," Dr. Mehta says.

After his surgery and rehabilitation, Richard finished the three large sculptures that were in the works when he suddenly became ill.

"There is medical creativity and artistic creativity, and one can say there is an art to everything when done at a high level," says Richard. "It was a medical intervention of a very important sort. Thanks to Northwestern Medicine, my heart is beating, and I can keep on working."

Saving a Sculptor’s Life With Art and Science
Saving a Sculptor’s Life With Art and Science

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Heron E. Rodriguez, MD
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