LOS ANGELES --Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb, a pediatric heart surgeon featured on national television for his transplants and other cardiac surgery on children, was found dead Sunday in his Little Rock, Ark., home. He was 45.
Dr. Drummond-Webb committed suicide by taking an overdose of medication, according to Arkansas Children's Hospital, where he had been chief of pediatric and congenital cardiac surgery for the past three years.
Friends said the doctor, who once described himself as "a bit of an extreme personality," suffered a sudden bout of depression. He had been diagnosed with a rare tissue cancer on his hip in 2001 but was successfully treated with surgery.
Dr. Drummond-Webb's accomplishments over 18 months in 2001 and early 2002 -- 830 surgeries with a 2 percent mortality rate -- became the subject of a four-part ABC News documentary, "ICU: Arkansas Children's Hospital."
A Los Angeles Times reviewer, praising the 2002 series, called Dr. Drummond-Webb a "medical miracle worker, triathlete, and surgeon extraordinaire."
Arkansas Children's Hospital chief executive Dr. Jonathan Bates had frequently praised Dr. Drummond-Webb for his meticulous attention to detail in the operating theater and his indefatigable efforts to treat his young patients.
"Some would say they saved 98 out of 100," Bates told the Associated Press. "He looked at it and said 'I lost two out of 100.' "
"This is a high-risk business. We see children walking out, we also see children who do not make it," Dr. Drummond-Webb said.
"I work on very hard facts and very hard statistics," he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette two years ago. "Even though we are driven by compassion, I think it's foolhardy to just proceed with compassion and heart alone. . . . The bottom line is that we're dealing with hard scientific evidence, and what I do demands ultimate perfection."
The doctor, who had no children of his own, was extremely popular with those he saved and their families. He considered himself their advocate and protector as well as surgeon.
On Christmas Day, he telephoned Travis Marcus, 14, for whom he performed, in September, the first successful implant of a miniature heart pump, keeping the boy alive until the right donor heart became available. Dr. Drummond-Webb personally harvested the carefully selected heart in Houston in November and flew back with it to Little Rock for the operation. When others doubted that the boy could return home for Christmas, Dr. Drummond-Webb worked to make sure he was able to leave the hospital two days before the holiday.
The boy's father, Rick, said his son was devastated by news of Dr. Drummond-Webb's death.
A native of Johannesburg, South Africa, Dr. Drummond-Webb was 8 years old on Dec. 3, 1967, when Dr. Christiaan Barnard made history by performing the world's first successful heart transplant in Cape Town.
"He was a saint in my mind," Dr. Drummond-Webb told the Democrat-Gazette. "I knew then that that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to operate on hearts."
The son of two well-to-do liberal intellectuals, whose surnames form his hyphenated name, Dr. Drummond-Webb attended boarding school and earned a medical degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. After two years service in the South African army, he completed a residency in cardiothoracic surgery at Johannesburg Hospital.
Encouraged by his wife, Dr. Lorraine E. de Blanche, Dr. Drummond-Webb emigrated to escape South African government restrictions on medical practice. In 1993, he became a fellow in cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at the University of Utah LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City.
Two years later, he moved to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, one of the most prominent centers in the United States for heart surgery.
He was lured to the Little Rock hospital by what he saw as a state of the art operating room, an enthusiastic surgical staff, and unlimited potential. He was determined to build the hospital into a nationally dominant pediatric cardiac center.
Dr. Drummond-Webb, who said he competed in triathlons merely to keep himself in shape for surgery, also became an associate professor of surgery in the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He conducted research and set a frenetic pace performing surgeries -- nearly three times the normal annual tally of 200.
Dr. Drummond-Webb leaves his wife.