Joseph J. Garamella, MD, Ph.D., age 97, of Hopkins and Maple Plain, pioneer in open heart surgery, passed away peacefully Wednesday, June 21, 2017, surrounded by his family and the melody of the beautiful hymns they sang.
He was born Nov. 8, 1919, in Bridgeport, CT, the son of Italian immigrants Joseph Vincent Garamella and Incoronata Petrocelli Garamella. From a young age, he learned the value of hard work as he and his five siblings helped the family earn enough money to survive. He would continue to work hard throughout his life.
After graduating from Holy Cross College, Worchester, MA, he went on to earn his medical degree from Georgetown University in Washington, DC in 1945. He interned at St. Francis Hospital, Hartford, CT, and did residencies at Holyoke Hospital in Holyoke, MA and Springfield Hospital, Springfield, MA.
His early medical training also included service in the medical corps of the US Naval Reserve from 1942 to 1948.
In 1946, Joseph married Christine Bouchard of Caribou, ME. The couple moved to Minneapolis, where they raised five beautiful children. They were married 32 years.
In 1950, Dr. Garamella began his training in general and thoracic surgery at the University of Minnesota. While in graduate school, he served as resident thoracic surgeon at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Minneapolis. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota Department of Cardiovascular Surgery in 1956.
He was the second surgeon to perform open heart surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis, and he and his team performed the first open heart procedure at Northwestern Hospital in 1958. His early work included ground-breaking methods to repair congenital heart defects.
In 1959, Dr. Garamella and his associates moved their practice to St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis (now part of the University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview campus), where they developed an open-heart research laboratory and performed the first open heart surgery at the hospital, in 1960. Although he worked primarily at St. Mary’s, he had staff privileges at 12 Minneapolis and St. Paul area hospitals, including Fairview, Abbott, and Northwestern.
Dedicated to his life’s work, Dr. Garamella’s relaxation was golf, and his beautiful 263-acre farm, Wind Song Farms, located in Maple Plain.
In 1979, Dr. Garamella married Jacqueline Hodges. They shared the love of medicine, nature, and animal husbandry. At Wind Song, they bred champion Paso Fino horses and Black Angus cattle for 30 years.
In the later part of his career, Dr. Garamella shifted his focus and began to use his gift for thoracic surgery in anterior exposures of the thoracic and lumbar spine for spine surgeons. This allowed him to begin semi-retirement by reducing his workload of personal care for acutely ill cardiovascular patients.
Throughout his career, Dr. Garamella helped advance his profession through his contributions to medical journals, and his leadership in many medical societies and associations. But his most significant contributions to the field came from the work he did to instruct and influence the next generation of surgeons. For most of his career, he held academic appointments at the University of Minnesota Department of Surgery. He was an excellent teacher, with a knack for making complicated surgeries look simple.
Dr. Garamella retired in 2007, shortly before his 88th birthday, but he never stopped gaining knowledge or being engaged. His boundless curiosity kept him reading and learning.
Although the Garamellas sold most of their property to Windsong Golf Club in 2001, they kept a farm of about 22 acres, where Dr. Garamella enjoyed spending time outdoors “walking the fences.”
He received many awards and accolades during his long career, not the least of which was earning the nickname “Cool Hand Luke” from the nurses he worked with, who appreciated his composure and proficiency even in the most difficult cases.
As much as he loved his life’s work, he was also very devoted to his family. With his gentle way and quiet voice, he influenced every family member through his wisdom, guidance, and example encouraging them to focus on the core values of life and push beyond their perceived limitations.His quiet demeanor didn’t limit his sense of humor with his sharp, dry wit, he often was steps ahead, waiting for others to catch up!
Dr. Garamella was preceded in death by three of his children Bruce Garamella, Krista Garamella Lewis, and Todd Garamella; his former wife Christine; and siblings William Garamella, Leonard Garamella, Anthony Garamella, and Mildred Garamella.
He is survived by his wife of 37 years, Jacqueline Garamella; daughters Paula C. (Bill) Tiner of Gray Eagle, CA; Tonja Garamella of Boca Raton, FL; and Tiffany “JT” Slayton of Baltimore, MD; daughter-in-law Barbara Garamella of Edina; son-in-law Phil Lewis of Grand Junction, CO; sister Laura Garamella Rossignol of Stratford, CT; 11 grandchildren; 21 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.
Mass of Christian of Christian Burial took place Wednesday, July 5 at 1 a.m. at Lakewood Cemetery Chapel, followed by interment at Lakewood Cemetery. Memorials are preferred to The American Heart Association or the Red Cross.
Arrangements were with Gill Brothers Funeral Services and Cremation, Minneapolis.