Holding Their Hearts in His Hands

Alumni10 MIN READ

Cardiac surgeon John Fallon ’05 has a passion for fixing hearts and resetting lives, giving people hope for a better future

Dr. John Fallon '05, a cardiothoracic surgeon with Maine Medical Partners - MaineHealth Cardiology, performs more than 200 heart surgeries each year.
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Gregory Rec
June 11, 2024

At first glance, the photos on the wall in the downtown Portland office of Dr. John Fallon ’05  seem to show ordinary Mainers doing ordinary things. 

A man looks delighted behind the wheel of his boat. A white-haired woman basks in the company of her family. A father walks his daughter down the aisle. A hiker dressed in cold-weather gear stands atop a snow-covered mountain, a winter vista spreading out far beneath him. 

But don’t be fooled. 

The people in these photos share something extraordinary that binds them: Fallon has held each of their hearts in his hands. 

Resetting hearts and lives

The cardiothoracic surgeon, who meets his patients when they are sick, scared, and uncertain what their future might bring—or if it will come at all—loves receiving photos from their lives after surgery, which he proudly adds to his “All-Star Wall.” 

To him, these photos make all the years of school—the tough organic chemistry classes, the slogging days and nights of medical training, the hardship on his family, the long hours in the operating room—worth it. The photos show how the people he saw at their worst recover and thrive. 

“That’s everything,” he said. “Those are all very important treasures for me.” 

“I can tell somebody that they have a problem, but I can fix it and hit the reset button. … It’s just really cool. You truly impact somebody’s life.”

Dr. John Fallon ’05

For Fallon, the challenge of fixing a broken heart requires knowledge, technical skill, compassion, understanding, and dedication. If those things are in place, the result of surgery can be outstanding, he said, something he doesn’t take for granted. 

“I can tell somebody that they have a problem, but I can fix it and hit the reset button,” he said. “That’s really great to be able to say that. You know, it’s just really cool. You can truly impact somebody’s life.” 

I know from personal experience that he’s right. 

‘That’s pretty special’

Every year, more than half a million people undergo open-heart surgery in the United States, a grisly sounding ordeal that entails cutting through the patient’s breastbone to get to the heart. The details, when you are forced  to confront them, can feel downright overwhelming. Still, the surgery is performed so often and with such positive results that it could almost be considered a straightforward, even run-of-the-mill, procedure. 

Until, that is, the heart in question is one that beats next to you every night, its slow and steady thud-thud-thud normally a signifier of comfort and security. When that is the specific heart that is stilled and chilled into silence under the bright lights of the operating room, suddenly the otherwise-quotidian operation becomes scary and fraught. 

That’s what happened to my partner, and by extension also to me. 

Ultimately, we were lucky. His operation went well and his recovery has been smooth. We were also lucky in the surgeon who happened to take on his case: Fallon, a man for whom it’s no exaggeration to say his heart is in his work. 

Dr. John Fallon first became interested in going into cardiovascular medicine when his high school science teacher brought his class to see an open heart surgery.

“I get fueled up when the heart starts to squeeze better right in front of you,” the surgeon said. “A heart that’s struggling. Sick. Tired. And then you revascularize it, or fix the valve, and that thing’s cranking afterwards—wow. You can visually see it right in front of you. And not to mention, you just take the clamp off and it starts beating again. That’s pretty special.” 

A looming widowmaker

Last summer, Jim Clark couldn’t shake a nagging fatigue that wouldn’t let up no matter how much sleep he got. Then, in August, he was swimming when he felt a sudden and alarming pressure in his chest that radiated up to the back of his neck. When it happened again, this time while jogging, he did something uncharacteristic: he called his doctor’s office and they scheduled him for an appointment a couple of days later. 

What the doctors learned was sobering. Jim had an 80 percent stenosis, or narrowing, of his left main coronary artery. That artery is especially critical because it supplies the heart with more than 75 percent of the fresh blood it needs to get the oxygen to pump properly. When it’s blocked, the heart can stop fast in what’s ominously called a “widowmaker” heart attack—one of the deadliest kinds of heart attacks. 

The strange sensation that Jim had been feeling had a name: angina pectoris, chest pain or discomfort that often is a warning sign that something is very wrong. Heart attack symptoms are numerous and often vary between men and women. They can include chest discomfort; lightheadedness, nausea, or vomiting; jaw, neck, or back pain; discomfort or pain in the arm or shoulder; and pain or discomfort in arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach; and shortness of breath. 

According to the American Heart Association, people who experience such warning signs should not wait to get help. Speed is essential when it comes to heart events.

That was our experience. Just two days after a heart catheterization revealed detailed information about Jim’s heart and arteries, we were in Portland to meet with Fallon. He was genial and patient as he explained what was happening in Jim’s heart and how he and his team would fix it. 

When Fallon asked if we had any preference about the timing of the surgery, we thought about the long, slightly panicked to-do list I had scribbled in the car on our drive to Portland. Jim said he was hoping to get some of the autumn chores checked off before he was out of commission for weeks on end. Perhaps we could return in a month or six weeks? 

The doctor’s smile and laid-back demeanor vanished, replaced by an intensity that shook us. 

“This is serious,” he said, then looked at his calendar. “I have space on Friday morning. Can you make it then?” 

The making of a heart surgeon

As a student at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, Mass., Fallon didn’t have aspirations beyond hoping to one day become a professional tennis player or mountain biker. That changed when his sophomore year biology teacher brought the students on a field trip to observe open-heart surgery. They watched via a video screen as the team performed an aortic valve replacement and asked questions while the surgeon worked. 

“I still remember sitting there and something just clicking, like, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen,” Fallon said. “I knew I wanted to do that. I knew I wanted to get to the heart.” 

From that moment, he was on a trajectory toward becoming a surgeon. 

Colby, a liberal arts school with a strong science program, has a tradition of preparing students to become doctors and surgeons. The College’s five-year medical school acceptance rate is 68 percent—the national average is 44 percent in any given year—and last year Colby’s acceptance rate was a whopping 86 percent, or nearly double the national average. 

“I still remember sitting there and something just clicking, like, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen. I knew I wanted to do that. I knew I wanted to get to the heart.”

Dr. John Fallon ’05

Students from any discipline can go on to medical school, and the largest number that do are biology and psychology majors. But some of the majors of future medical students are surprising, and last year included environmental studies, physics, history, statistics, and Spanish. 

Nearly all of Colby’s applicants, including Fallon, take a gap year (or more) between college and medical school. This extra time allows students to pace themselves as undergraduates and participate in study abroad opportunities and campus activities such as athletics, research, and community service, while still ensuring they have enough time to study for the Medical College Admissions Test. Advising remains available for Colby graduates applying to medical school no matter when they graduated from the College. 

Becoming a surgeon was a good fit for Fallon, a biochemistry major and athlete who enjoyed the school-life balance he found on Mayflower Hill. He was captain of the tennis team, studied abroad in Australia, and spent one Jan Plan doing a research internship at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. 

“The sciences at Colby are so strong,” he said. “As long as you know what it takes, you can make your own path.” 

After graduation, he began the journey to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. First, he studied for four years at the UMass Chan Medical School in Worcester, Mass., then spent seven years at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., where he did his residency in general surgery.  Finally, he did a special three-year cardiothoracic heart surgery fellowship at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. 

“Medical school gives you your medical degree, but by the end of it you need to decide if you want to be a medicine person or a surgeon,” Fallon said. “I discovered pretty quickly that because of my sports and action type of mindset, I easily went into the surgeon category, and then that was my route to get to the heart.” 

Team captain 

A sports mindset is something that the surgeon always brings with him to the operating room. “You’re the captain managing the entire room,” he said. 

For even a straightforward bypass surgery, like Jim’s, there are eight people working in the operating room: an anesthesiologist, a perfusionist who manages the heart-lung machine, an anesthesia tech, a scrub nurse, a physician’s assistant, a circulating nurse, and a trainee or resident of some type, along with the surgeon. 

There’s also a plan of action and a concerted effort to avoid surprises. Cardiac surgeons have a saying: snakes hide under rocks, and the more rocks you look under, the more you can avoid getting bit. “The devil’s in the details,” Fallon said. 

Jim Clark and Abigail Curtis pose on the carriage trails at Acadia National Park in a photo that hangs on Dr. John Fallon’s All-Star Wall.

As the team captain, Fallon sets the tone in the operating room and endeavors to encourage and support the others in their work. It’s very different from Hollywood portrayals of surgeries as tense, high-stress endeavors. 

After Jim was anesthetized, Fallon cut into his breastbone and moved an artery from underneath his chest while the physician’s assistant harvested an artery from his non-dominant arm. Then the surgical team connected him to the heart-lung machine, which took on the work of pumping and oxygenating his blood, while medicine was used to stop and preserve his heart while the team worked on it. 

It’s dangerous for patients to stay on the heart-lung machine too long and so each team member has a critical role to play to make sure the surgery goes as quickly and well as possible. What they strive for is called “surgical flow.” 

“The best surgeries go quietly because everybody knows what is needed, and it’s really anticipated, it’s routine, it’s smooth, and it’s pretty beautiful,” Fallon said.

A worthwhile career

There are other challenges for surgeons like Fallon. Cardiac surgery is an hours-long procedure, and each of the six surgeons who work at Maine Medical Partners – MaineHealth Cardiology performs more than 200 surgeries a year. It’s physically and mentally draining, and many surgeons suffer from neck and back troubles and burnout. 

He credits his wife, Caroline Fallon, and their young children for helping him stay the course. “We’re a team,” he said. “They’re extremely supportive and keep it all going.” 

Fallon encourages students who are interested in medicine to trust their instincts and keep going, despite the challenges preparing to become a doctor and thriving as one. 

“It takes a lot of persistence, dedication, and trust,” he said. “I mean, yes, it was hard. But I’m in a place I love, taking care of awesome people, and I get to do incredible surgery. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel that makes it all worth it.” 

Jim and I also glimpsed that light starting immediately after the surgery, as his blood moved more easily through the grafted arteries and his energy returned. A month later, we went to Acadia National Park and walked for miles on the carriage roads. 

We took a photo of Jim looking hale and strong on the trail that day, smiling under the kind of vibrant blue sky that is only found on the Maine coast in October. That’s the one I think we’ll share with Fallon in hopes of making it to his All-Star Wall.