John Mellencamp Meets the Surgeon Who Saved His Life
When John Mellencamp was born in 1951, medicine to correct and mitigate the effects of spinal bifida was still in its developmental stages — in fact, Mellencamp’s own brush with the disease was only ended thanks to a series of lucky breaks, an experimental procedure and one very skilled surgeon.
As Mellencamp discussed during a recent CBS News segment, he didn’t even know about his potentially life-saving operation — which took place when he was a mere nine days old — until he was in grade school. “I didn’t even know I had the operation until some kid, I was about 9 or 10, said ‘What’s that big scar on the back of your neck?’ and I went home and asked my parents,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. You had an operation.'”
The doctor responsible for the operation, Robert Heimburger, finally had a chance to meet with Mellencamp face to face last month, and it proved an emotional experience in more ways than one. Describing the experience of seeing photos of himself before the operation, Mellencamp said it was like “finding out your parents weren’t your parents,” and added, “I mean, it was really an epiphany moment for me. I couldn’t thank the guy enough.”
That isn’t just lip service, either. Mellencamp was one of three children born with spinal bifida at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis during 1951, and he’s the only one still with us. “They did three operations,” he said. “One died on the table. Another girl lived, I think, till she was 14, and then she died. And then me. They basically cut my head off from here to here, laid it open, cut that thing off then put all the nerves into my spine.” And after all that work, Heimburger “charged my parents $1. I was a guinea pig.”
When the two finally met, Mellencamp said, “Basically we talked about faith, ’cause I have very little faith in anything. [He] just kept grabbing my hand and saying ‘John, you need to have faith.'” That’s solid advice from the guy who saved your life, and he says he’s taking it to heart; as he told CBS, the meeting left him “Trying to find faith in something.”