December 4, 2018

In Memoriam: Coggin, 90, Helped Take Open-Heart Surgery Team Overseas

C. Joan Coggin, the Loma Linda University Health cardiologist who in the 1960s co-founded the Loma Linda University Overseas Heart Surgery Team, died Thursday, November 29, 2018. She was 90.

In 1963, Coggin’s influence extended across international borders when she and Ellsworth E. Wareham co-founded the overseas team, which was established at a time when few hospitals performed open-heart surgeries. The Overseas Heart Surgery Team would go on to perform more open-heart surgeries than any similar organization.  

Coggin and Wareham pioneered the use of the heart-lung machine in Southern California, United States, operating one day a week at Los Angeles County General Hospital. Each week they packed a heart-lung machine and ancillary equipment needed for cardiac surgery into the trunk of Wareham’s car for the short drive from the White Memorial Medical Center to Los Angeles County Hospital. 

This practice led the two physicians to the conclusion that they could pack all the equipment in a plane and transport it thousands of miles to make open-heart surgery available overseas.

Coggin and Wareham refined their plans for the Overseas Heart Surgery Team until the U.S. State Department, on the recommendation of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, sponsored the team on its first trip — to Pakistan. From the moment she began working on the project, Coggin was convinced it would be successful. “I always believed in dreaming dreams and not being afraid of failure,” she said later.

Record-Setting Service

Coggin participated as a team member on numerous missions to Europe, Asia, and Africa. For more than 50 years the heart team initiated or upgraded open-heart surgery programs in countries including Chile, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.

In the course of her international travel, Coggin met with heads of state from Pakistan, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Vietnam, and Nepal. At home, she met U.S. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

An authority in the field of cardiology, she held administrative and teaching positions at Loma Linda University Health and wrote and lectured extensively.

Coggin’s administrative and teaching capacities at Loma Linda University Health included serving as vice president for global outreach; special assistant to the president for international affairs; associate dean for international programs, and professor at the School of Medicine. 

“Joan Coggin was an icon at Loma Linda University. Her passion for helping those in need and her dedication to teaching others how to enhance the level of care in their countries leave a legacy around the world,” said Loma Linda University Health president Richard Hart. “She will also be remembered for her sense of humor, which infected those with whom she came into contact and even helped to ease tense situations.”

About Her Life and Studies

Charlotte Joan Coggin was born August 6, 1928, in Washington, D.C. to Charles B. and Nanette Coggin. When she was an infant, the family moved to California so her father could attend the School of Medicine at the College of Evangelists (CME, now Loma Linda University).

Medicine and research were familiar topics in the Coggin home. Her father graduated from CME in 1935. A member of the Harveian Society of CME, Charles Coggin worked with society members to raise the consciousness at Loma Linda University about the importance of research at a time when many faculty members either could not see its value or felt they did not have time or funding to pursue it. 

Joan Coggin was a toddler during the Great Depression when her father became editor of Harveian Review, a journal that featured articles and editorials describing the value of research. 

She received her undergraduate degree from Columbia Union College, Takoma Park, Maryland, in 1948, and her medical doctor (MD) degree from CME School of Medicine as a member of the class of 1953-A. 

After completing medical school, Coggin pursued postgraduate training at Los Angeles County General Hospital (1952-55), and a fellowship in cardiology at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles (1955-56). In 1958, she was board certified in pediatrics by the American Board of Pediatrics.

She wanted to become a pediatrician until she learned that adult cardiologists did most pediatric cardiology at the time. Intrigued by the challenges associated with congenital heart disease — the types of heart diseases most often seen in pediatric patients — she completed additional study at Hammersmith Hospital in London, England (1955-57) and a fellowship at Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (1965-67). In 1987, she earned a Master of Public Health degree from Loma Linda University School of Public Health.

Coggin began her career when women made up less than 5 percent of medical school graduates nationally. During more than 50 years of her involvement, she built a cardiology practice and professional reputation that earned for her a place of distinction in American medical history. Of her decision to enter medicine she stated, “I didn’t know any other life than that of a physician. I had my second birthday in Loma Linda when my father entered the School of Medicine. I grew up always wanting to become a physician.”

In Search of Excellence

As a recognized authority in the field of cardiology, Coggin wrote and lectured extensively and shared her expertise through membership in civic, community, and professional organizations. Of her decision to pursue cardiology she said, “One of the reasons I changed my mind was that often a child could be so sick one day, and the next day the child would be perfectly all right. What I like about cardiology is that you can figure out what the problem is. You have clues. You have the patient’s history. If the heart makes a certain type of sound, you know immediately what the problem is.” 

The importance of medical research, which her father had impressed upon her as a child, was ingrained in Coggin’s career. She was a principal author or coauthor of more than 50 scientific articles published in peer-reviewed publications.

“It just boggles the mind to think of the advances that medicine will make in the next 50 years, if time should last!” she marveled as she recalled discarding a teaching slide she had created titled “Cardiac Conditions for Which There Is No Treatment.” Advances in medicine had made it possible for all 12 of the listed conditions to be successfully treated. 

On February 24, 2004, Coggin’s contributions to Loma Linda University Health were celebrated by friends and colleagues as she concluded a half-century of service as a teacher, administrator, and goodwill ambassador. The same year she was named professor emerita, Department of Medicine, School of Medicine; and Loma Linda University Health presented her with the President’s Award. 

Additional awards she received include: Distinguished University Service Award (Loma Linda University); Lifetime Achievement Award (Association of Adventist Women); Outstanding Woman of the Year in Science Award (California Museum of Science and Industry); Gold Medal of Health (Ministry of Health of South Vietnam), Zella Hobert Award (Columbia Union College); Honorary Doctor of Humanitarian Service (La Sierra University).

A consultant to the television and motion picture industries for medically oriented programs, Coggin was once presented with the Golden Eagle Cine Award at the Venice Film Festival.

In 2003, she edited and published the book Into All the World: Adventist Hospitals and Dental Clinics Overseas.

When asked what was most gratifying to her as a physician, Coggin responded: “To see people who were incapacitated — whether young or old — and then seeing them well again. This is what makes medicine very rewarding.”

The original version of this story was posted on the Loma Linda University Health news page.

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