Bechara F. Akl; Surgeon Devoted Life to Repairing Children's Hearts

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Bechara F. Akl, 61, founder of the pediatric cardiac surgery program at Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children, died Oct. 21 of cancer at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church. He was an Annandale resident and a partner in Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery Associates.

Repairing the damaged hearts of children was Dr. Akl's passion and his life's work, as The Washington Post noted in a 2002 article about a 6-year-old Kenyan girl who was within a few years of death because of a congenital heart defect. Dr. Akl led a team of doctors in a surgical procedure to seal an open blood vessel near her heart.

"In less than two hours in the operating room, the little girl's life was turned around," the article says. Dr. Akl and his team not only saved her life but also freed her from the debilitating lethargy that had disrupted her childhood. It was one of several thousand open-heart procedures he performed during a career that lasted nearly four decades.

"It's a really demanding specialty," said Steven Keller, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children. "Not only is it very challenging technically, but it requires a great knowledge of physiology, anatomy and all the variations. It also requires creativity on the fly during surgery. Very few people are actually able to do it with the success that Dr. Akl had."

An article about heart disease in the July 1997 issue of Washingtonian magazine underscored his surgical skills. Operating on 8-day-old Dana, born prematurely with two heart defects, he cut open the tiny chest, detached the pulmonary artery and sealed a hole the size of a dime.

"The step was especially precarious," Washingtonian noted. "The artery forks in a Y shape downward to both lungs, which it then covers with a spider web of whisker-thin branches. Any clumsy tug, any slip with a surgical instrument could tear the heart or puncture the lungs."

Nearly two hours and numerous painstaking procedures later, Dr. Akl removed the infant from the heart-lung bypass and sewed up her tiny, birdlike chest. A week after surgery, little Dana "was pink and cooing, fixing her large blue eyes on her mother's face." She went home the next day.

Dr. Akl often told family members that one of his favorite times of year was the weekend of Inova's annual heart surgery picnic. It was a day when he could watch patients from years past, now energetic and healthy, as they played in a park with their brothers and sisters. "They are distinguishable only by a scar, which they so proudly lift up their shirts to display," he said.

Dr. Akl was born in Damascus, Syria, and received his undergraduate and medical degrees at the Faculte Francaise de Medicine in Beirut in 1968. Only 23 years old at the time, he moved to the United States to continue his medical training at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, and then completed his cardiothoracic surgery training at the University of New Mexico in 1975.

He remained at the University of New Mexico to establish a program in congenital cardiac surgery and then moved to Northern Virginia in 1988 to become chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children. He handled about 400 cases a year, both adults and children.

Keller noted that Dr. Akl helped make Inova's pediatric cardiac surgery program a leader in the nation. "Before Dr. Akl's illness 2 1/2 years ago, we were getting some of the best results in the country," he said.

Dr. Akl loved to ski, having learned in the mountains of Lebanon. His wife preferred ice-skating and was eager to teach him. He did fine, a daughter recalled, until he fell and hit his head on the ice while trying to protect his hands. After the stitches were removed, husband and wife retreated to their individual preferences in winter sports.

Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Jane Akl of Annandale; three daughters, Danielle Akl, Laura Akl and Stephanie Akl, all of Annandale; two brothers; a sister; and a granddaughter.

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