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Pediatric surgeon Sambamurthy Subramanian, ‘Dr. Superman,’ dies

Dr. Sambamurthy Subramanian, a pioneer pediatric heart surgeon, was so well-known in Buffalo medical circles into the late 1980s, that he was affectionately dubbed the “Miracle Doctor” for his surgical skills.

The former chief of cardiovascular surgery at Women & Children’s Hospital through 1987 – and who was internationally famous for his medical achievements, operating on premature babies and children from around the world – died July 17 in Miami following a long illness. He was 81.

Subramanian – also called “Dr. Superman” by his young patients and their parents alike – had strong ties to Western New York, where he was well-known as a skilled “mender” of hearts.

“He was a real pioneer in his field,” said his daughter, Saskia Subramanian. “He was very well-known, both for his wonderful work and philanthropic work.”

Subramanian touched the lives of many Western New York children, as well as countless others from around the world who required heart surgery. Infants and children from as far away as Poland, India, Greece, Italy and Puerto Rico, traveled to Buffalo to seek Subramanian’s help, including the use of surface-induced hypothermia and transfusion-free open heart surgery.

Pictured with his trademark beard and known for visiting his patients afterward, he spent two decades practicing in Buffalo. In 1967, he was recruited to start the pediatric surgery program at Children’s Hospital after completing his pediatric surgery fellowship training at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. He remained at the Buffalo hospital for two decades as its head of cardiovascular surgery and quickly became a household name.

“He would tackle congenital anomalies that most surgeons would say, ‘I can’t do anything for you,’ ” said Dr. Theodore Putnam, who worked with Subramanian at Buffalo Children’s Hospital in the 1970s. “He was fearless and that’s why he was so good.”

Born in India, he earned his medical degree in 1955 from the GS Medical College at the University of Mumbai and interned at the affiliated King Edward Memorial Hospital. He subsequently trained at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London and became one of the youngest fellows inducted into the Royal College of Surgeons.

Young surgeons from around the world, including Japan, South America, India, Israel and Europe, traveled to Buffalo to learn his techniques. It is estimated that he performed about 300 surgeries each year.

Dr. Subramanian was well-known as the co-inventor of a technique used to cool babies with a hypothermic chamber: patients would be put inside and their body temperature was gently reduced to slow their circulation and keep their temperature down so that minimal blood loss occurred during surgery.

With his colleague, Dr. B.A. Vidne, he invented the surgical hypothermia chamber that became the medical gold standard for a number of years.

His daughter said that was particularly helpful for Jehovah’s Witness patients, who are not allowed to have blood transfusions. “He used this technique for many babies,” she said.

Dr. Subramanian also was true to his career, and when a patient’s family could not pay their medical bill, he would often waive the fees for those here and abroad.

In addition, he had a great sense of humor, was always upbeat and was very charismatic, Putnam said, adding that Subramanian used his charisma and dedication to help raise money for the hospital throughout his time in Buffalo.

He left Buffalo to create an international heart program in 1987 at Miami Children’s Hospital and established the Dubon chair in cardiovascular surgery. He received emeritus status at the Miami hospital upon his retirement in 1995. A lifelong student, after retiring from medical practice, he went on to earn his law degree and later a master’s of business administration from the University of Miami.

In an interview with The Buffalo News in 1985, he said he decided to learn to play piano at age 50, after giving up flying. He seemed to have an easy way about him, regarding his philosophy on overall health.

“I certainly don’t exercise my body unnecessarily. I think the human body is like an automobile,” he said. “It has so many miles in it. If you do too much, you burn it out.”

Dr. Subramanian received many honors, including being named Hunterian professor by the Royal College of Surgeons of England and receiving the title of knight commander by decree of the president of Italy, the highest award given to noncitizens. He also served as a professor of surgery at the University of Buffalo.

Aside from his daughter by late wife Cornelia Termeulen, survivors include his second wife, the former Donna Gordon; three brothers, S. Thyagarajan, S. Nagarajan and S. Sriram; his sister, Mahalakshmi Viswanathan; and two grandsons.

News Staff Reporter Brett Samuels contributed to this report. email: