Dr. Thomas Gentsch and his wife, Betty, were a team in every sense, responsible for treating thousands of patients from Miami to Madagascar — from open heart surgery to typhoid.
The couple, Tom, a cardiac surgeon at South Miami Hospital and the Miami Heart Institute who performed the first human heart transplant in the southeast at the Miami Beach hospital in 1969, and Betty, a registered nurse, spent the latter parts of their careers conducting medical missions in Africa.
The couple, married for 61 years, died within months of one another; Thomas on July 21 at 87, and Betty on Sept. 11 at 85, in Issaquah, Washington, where they had moved after retirement.
“They did almost everything together,” said son Tom Gentsch. “I credit my mother to a large degree for Dad’s success and their ability to raise a family like we have. It’s like that saying, ‘Behind every successful man is a strong woman.’ That is definitely a big part of his success.”
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Beginning in 1981, 20 years after the couple first moved to Miami from New York, the pair would embark on six- to eight-week-long medical missions that often amounted to 7,000-mile journeys with primitive accommodations, operating rooms that ran on prayers and generators, and pore-clogging, sweaty hard work.
The pair aided patients in Cameroon, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, as well as remote villages in eastern Zaire, near the Ugandan border. They saw typhoid. Tetanus. Parasitic diseases. The sun provided available light in “operating rooms” that got by on gasoline generators. General anesthesia wasn’t a given for everyone.
One six-week mission in 1983, for example, found Gentsch performing nearly 100 operations — “on everything from the eyeballs to the toes,” he said in a 1983 Miami Herald profile — while his wife monitored vital signs and even acted as a dental assistant.
“Over there, you’re dealing strictly with medicine. You’re doing what you have been trained to do. You’re not bogged down with administrative details, filling out forms and committee meetings,” Thomas said at the time.
The duo’s housing included two low wooden beds, a couple basins and kerosene lamps, and an outhouse.
“I guess having raised four boys and done a lot of camping, there was no culture shock,” Betty Gentsch joked.
Thomas was born on May 30, 1927, in Merrick, New York, served in the medical corp of the Army in the mid-1940s and earned his medical degree from the Yale University School of Medicine in 1953.
In 1952, he married his childhood sweetheart, Betty, one week after she earned her bachelor of science degree and nursing certification from Columbia University. Betty, who was born on July 28, 1929, in Brooklyn, joined the faculty at Yale University School of Nursing and by 1960, with four sons to raise, she became a full-time mom — when she wasn’t globetrotting with her husband healing the sick.
“Dad worked some pretty hellacious hours but we were very fortunate to have such a strong mother,” said son John Gentsch from his home in Dallas. “It was very much a partnership. In the home situation Mom didn’t ‘rule the roost’ but she certainly organized it. Mom definitely made the opportunities. I remember her involvement with my father when he was president of the Miami chapter of the American Heart Association. She was right there with him helping make sure everything got done, charity drives and fund raising events.”
Dedicated and devoted to his work, Thomas was also humble, his son Tom said from his home in Memphis. “He didn’t seek recognition but he is, by far, the most influential person in my life, hands down.”
Thomas landed in the news in late 1969 when he, along with doctors David Nathan and Parry Larsen, performed that human heart transplant at Miami Heart Institute, two years after South African cardiac surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard successfully performed the first such operation in Cape Town. In both cases, the patient succumbed to pneumonia in about two weeks.
“For those, like myself, an associate and friend who knew Tom and had the honor and privilege of practicing cardiac surgery with this great pioneer, teacher, innovator and humble man, his spirit will live on,” said Dr. Ernest Traad. “A true surgical artist…he was always ahead of his time and through innovation and great skill, his surgical contributions advanced the science of cardiac surgery.”
The Gentsches are survived by their sons Tom, Richard, John and David and six grandchildren. The family plans a celebration of life later this year. Donations can be sent in their names to Saint Andrew’s Lutheran Church-Missionary Support at www.salchome.org.
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