(p. 195) Forssmann received his medical degree from the University of Berlin in 1929. That year, he interned at a small hospital northwest of Berlin, the Auguste-Viktoria-Heim in Eberswalde. He pleaded with his superiors for approval to try a new procedure–to inject drugs directly into the heart–but was unable to persuade them of his new concept’s validity. Undaunted, Forssmann proceeded on his own. His goal was to improve upon the administration of drugs into the central circulation during emergency operations.
The circumstances of the incident on November 5, 1929, revealed by Forssmann in his autobiography, could hardly have been (p. 196) more dramatic. The account reflects Forssmann’s dogged determination, willpower, and extraordinary courage. He gained the trust of the surgical nurse who provided access to the necessary instruments. So carried away by Forssmann’s vision, she volunteered herself to undergo the experiment. Pretending to go along with her, Forssmann strapped her down to the table in a small operating room while his colleagues took their afternoon naps. When she wasn’t looking, he anesthetized his own left elbow crease. Once the local anesthetic took effect, Forssmann quickly performed a surgical cutdown to expose his vein and boldly manipulated a flexible ureteral catheter 30 cm toward his heart. This thin sterile rubber tubing used by urologists to drain urine from the kidney was 65 cm long (about 26 inches). He then released the angry nurse.
They walked down two flights of stairs to the X-ray department, where he fearlessly advanced the catheter into the upper chamber (atrium) on the right side of his heart, following its course on a fluoroscopic screen with the aid of a mirror held by the nurse. (Fluoroscopy is an X-ray technique whereby movement of a body organ, an introduced dye, or a catheter within the body can be followed in real time.) He documented his experiment with an X-ray film. Forssmann was oblivious to the danger of abnormal, potentially fatal heart rhythms that can be provoked when anything touches the sensitive endocardium, the inside lining of the heart chambers.
Meyers, Morton A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.