Hillel Laks

UCLA School of Medicine

As chief of cardiothoracic surgery at UCLA School of Medicine, Dr. Hillel Laks performed the first heart transplant in Southern California in 1984. Four years later, he did the first heart-lung transplant in the region.

Thanks to his groundbreaking work, the UCLA Heart Transplant Program has become one of the largest in the world, performing more than 900 transplants since 1984.

"When I was in medical school, I chose to go into heart surgery because at the time, it was the most challenging of the specialties. It's where an individual can make the most difference," he said. "I've been fortunate."

Laks, 56, was born in Pretoria, South Africa and received his early medical training in Israel. In 1981, he became chief of cardiothoracic surgery at UCLA and now performs more than 500 heart surgeries each year.

He revels in challenges, typically taking on the most complex heart operations and making them seem almost routine. Several years ago, he performed a quadruple bypass on the heart of a deceased, 53-year-old donor and then successfully transplanted it into a 68-year-old man who is still alive.

More recently, he developed a technique using Gore-Tex patches to reinforce the walls of dangerously enlarged hearts.

"He is universally acknowledged to be a magician in the operating room," said Dr. Lynne Warner Stevenson, director of the heart failure program at Brigham & Women;'s Hospital in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School. "He's very creative in his approach to problems. What to him are just answers to problems facing him are to others major innovations in the field."

With such a reputation, Laks is a preferred heart surgeon for L.A.'s entertainment elite. Among those he has treated are Sylvester Stallone's infant daughter, who was born with a heart defect; the father of Michael Ovitz; and Phoenix Pictures Chairman and Chief Executive Mike Medavoy.

Medavoy, who had two heart valves repaired by Laks in May, said he chose Laks because he has the reputation of being one of the top heart surgeons in the country.

"The question you have to ask before you go in is whether the surgeon has seen your condition before," Medavoy says. "He had seen my condition a few hundred times. He was very clear in terms of what he thought he was looking at."

For the most part, Laks chooses the most complex cases referred to him by other cardiologists. His surgeries range in length from three hours to as long as 10 hours. Laks typically starts his day before 7 a.m. and leaves the hospital after 9 p.m.

"I'm blessed with great endurance," he says. "I also rigorously observe the Jewish Sabbath, which gives me the opportunity to rest and recharge my batteries for the coming week."

Laks' latest project is developing the next generation of artificial hearts. He considers the first artificial hearts developed in the 1980s to be too large and cumbersome.

"We're working on a new heart with an internal electrical motor, which should reduce its size tremendously," Laks says. "We're hopeful that this will provide a solution to address the heart donor shortage and help tens of thousands of people who need transplants but cannot get them."

Howard Fine

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