Had Eugene Dong not gotten through his first semester at Hartnell College, the first human heart transplant may not have happened – or it may have been delayed years.
Dong was a brilliant teenager and attended Hartnell College at the age of 16. But that first semester away from home and being in a “sink or swim” environment almost drowned the future doctor.
“I hardly got through my first semester and almost flunked out,” said Dong. “I was too used to being the brightest guy in my high school and didn't apply myself. But with some help of my professors at Hartnell, I got the hang of it by my second semester. I grew up fast and found my focus.”
Dong graduated from Hartnell College with an associate degree, later earning a bachelor’s degree in physiology from UC Berkeley before graduating from medical school at the University of California. After interning at New York City's Bellevue Hospital performing heart catheterization studies, Dong returned to the Bay Area to work at the Stanford medical school under Dr. Norman Shumway. Shumway was preparing to perform the first human heart transplant after completing the first-ever heart transplant in a dog. Although Dr. Christiaan Barnard of South Africa beat the Shumway team for the first human heart transplant in 1967, he used data and methods developed by Shumway and Dong.
Shumway would perform the first successful human heart transplant in the United States in 1968 at Stanford. The recipient, 54-year-old steel worker, Mike Kasperak, died 14 days later of multiple organ failure. In 1970, Dong became the principal investigator for human transplant research at Stanford, which pioneered many techniques and drug therapies to reduce rejection of organs.
Dong later taught at the Stanford Medical School. In 1981, he graduated with a law degree from Santa Clara University. At the time, a person with an M.D. and a J.D. was rare and, in a bit of irony, Dong sued the University of Utah and the University of California, San Diego over falsified data used by a research doctor in securing National Institute of Health grants.
“I'm responsible for applying the ‘False Claims Act' successfully for the first time," Dong said. "I'm proud of that.”