The get-well card was so tall that even 6-foot-5 surgeon William C. DeVries had to crane his neck to scribble a note to his patient with the artificial heart:

"Bill Schroeder -- took a licking and keeps on ticking."

The message was vintage DeVries -- a dry, slightly irreverent, sometimes off-the-wall wit that has won him quick acceptance with his new colleagues in Louisville and with Schroeder, who refers to his doctor as "good old buddy Bill."

Photographs of DeVries signing the card from local well-wishers were distributed worldwide by a savvy hospital public relations team -- yet another in a series of new glimpses of the lanky surgeon whose experimentation with mechanical hearts has made him a reluctant celebrity.

DeVries, who tended to shun the news media in Utah, is allowing himself a higher profile in Louisville, where the Humana Inc. hospital corporation is funding his research and escorting him before the international news media.

Last week, as a polyurethane heart kept his famous patient alive, DeVries accepted an invitation to throw out the first ball for the season opener of the city's new indoor soccer league. At least twice since Schroeder's implant on Nov. 25, DeVries has been spotted at University of Louisville basketball games, and congratulated by strangers.

But DeVries said it's no big deal that his sandy-silver hair, gaunt frame and Dutch surname now add up to instant recognition.

"Oh, you get tired of signing cups at McDonalds," he said.

But the 40-year-old surgeon said he can't stomach the traditional image of heart surgeons as the "Type A" imperious prima donnas of the medical world.

"Yeah, people try to put you on a pedestal, but you're just a regular person," DeVries said. "You don't order people around and stuff like that."

Co-workers at Humana Hospital-Aububon describe DeVries as the kind of doctor who shows up on Sundays to cheer discouraged patients. He occasionally changes dressings, traditionally a nurses' job, if the patient wants him to stick around and talk. They mention the time he showed up for a predawn baby shower for a night-shift nurse.

Friends said that DeVries, who wears cowboy boots with his surgical scrubs and repairs hearts to the beat of Vivaldi or jazz, is an "old shoe" who fits in wherever he goes.

"He's always got a smile lurking, a smile just beneath the skin," said Louisville cardiologist Dr. Robert Goodin. "He's always looking for a way to let it out."

But even further beneath that smile lies a serious intensity about outsmarting disease and a dedication to the dream that millions of dying patients could be saved by mechanical hearts.

Una Loy Clark, who came to know DeVries well during the 112 days he kept her husband Dr. Barney B. Clark alive with a mechanical heart, remembered DeVries as "not terribly outgoing. He keeps a lot in. He seemed very quiet and very serious.

"I've seen him come into the intensive care unit with his shirttail hanging out, hair rumpled, sleepy-eyed, not having had very much rest and sort of living in the hospital at the beginning."

On a Saturday morning shortly after DeVries joined the Louisville practice of Dr. Allan M. Lansing at Audubon, the hospital's paging system called an emergency code. Goodin said he rushed to the cardiac unit.

"When I arrived, Bill DeVries was up over this patient, all 6-foot-5 of him, doing CPR cardio-pulmonary resuscitation ," Goodin said. "Here he is in a totally strange hospital. He has no idea if it was his patient -- he really didn't ask any questions -- nor did he care. That says a lot about a person."

DeVries, the son of a doctor and a nurse, was born in Brooklyn and moved to Utah a few years later. After graduating from the University of Utah, he entered its medical school in 1966. He spent his internship and residency at Duke University, then returned to Utah in 1979 to study with Dr. Willem Kolff, head of the university's division of artificial organs.

Since moving to Louisville, DeVries clearly has reveled in Humana Inc.'s multimillion-dollar commitment to pay for up to 100 artificial-heart implants. That gives him the opportunity to forget fund-raising and to "do what I'm supposed to be doing," he said.

DeVries has been sharing on-call duties with the six other surgeons, performing routine open-heart surgery and making regular rounds.

DeVries was criticized in Utah for allowing his preoccupation with Clark to interfere with his attention to the rest of his practice.

The nature of his work invites controversy, but DeVries said, "You get to the point that you don't care what people think about you . . . . You're totally sold on the project."

DeVries said in an interview that he is convinced that artificial hearts some day will offer dying patients many more satisfying years, but he acknowledged that they still are experimental. But he frequently points out that penicillin was discovered as a byproduct of a failed experiment.

"The experiment may be successful, and it may save hundreds of thousands of peoples' lives," he said. "It may be a failure -- may not work at all -- and even then an offshoot of it may save hundreds of thousands of peoples' lives."

DeVries said he is so convinced of the rightness of the for-profit hospital chain's controversial involvement that last week he called for a national independent panel to review his work.

DeVries said he feels no need to escape the high-pressure world of cardiac surgery and experimental research.

"Actually, the best thing to relieve pressure and tension in my life is to be in the operating room and do a beautiful job."

But DeVries has found some time for a life outside the hospital.

DeVries, who attended the University of Utah on a track scholarship and remains an avid basketball player, spends his spare time making stained glass windows.

He gets a kick out of jumping on a backyard trampoline and going to movies with his seven children, ages four to 18. "All kinds of movies," he says, "I'm not too selective."

He was active in his son's Boy Scout troop in Utah and once ducked out of a formal dinner and headed off with a Jarvik-7 heart in his hand to give a talk to a friend's Boy Scout troop.

But DeVries acknowledges that repairing human hearts, both natural and manufactured, "changes you. It makes you different."

"It's your life," he says, "you never leave it.