I met cardiologist Richard Lueker at Karma Kitchen one Sunday afternoon in Berkeley where he was doing service as a volunteer waiter. The moment I'd stepped into the restaurant, that day's volunteer maitre d', Viral Mehta, said, "It's great that you showed up today. We were going to call you because there's someone here we want you to meet. Be sure to ask him about his story."
I looked around the restaurant—always lively on the Sunday afternoons it's taken over by Karma Kitchen volunteers—and spotted a tall, distinguished-looking, gray-haired man. I kept my eye on him for a few moments and was struck by his quiet attentiveness as he spoke with people. It wasn't hard to guess this was the man Viral wanted me to meet. But he had his hands full. Since I was there not only for lunch, but for the unexpected meetings that always seem to take place at Karma Kitchen, I was happy to wait until things slowed down. I knew there would be new adventures to keep me busy.
Dr. Lueker was visiting his close friends in the Bay Area, Viral and Pavi, and taking a break from running New Heart, a cardiac care and rehabilitation clinic in Albuquerque, which he founded with the financial help of one of his heart patients.
Dr. Lueker first moved to Albuquerque over thirty years ago after finishing his residency at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He'd landed a job with the University of New Mexico as an assistant professor of medicine and was to work at the Bernalillo County Hospital. Not long afterwards, he established his own private practice.
As a new member of the community, Lueker began thinking about how to help serve the local population. He envisioned establishing a clinic where new methods of care for heart patients could be put into broader practice.
When I finally got to speak with Dr. Lueker that Sunday afternoon, it wasn't long before I asked if he'd agree to being interviewed. The special story Viral had mentioned should be shared with others. Would he be in town a few more days? A little window of time was found and on the appointed day met in San Francisco where the remarkable story could be told without interruptions.
Richard Whittaker: Why don't we start right away with the story that took place around your son. How old was he at that time?
Richard Lueker, M.D.: He was seven. He's now forty-one. He had been quite sick for several months. It was something we couldn't figure out. He was so weak and fatigued he was not able to play with the other kids. If he went swimming at his grandparents' he would get into the pool for a few minutes and then climb out and go to sleep on the edge of the pool.
RW: At that time did you already have your medical degree?
RW: So he had all the best diagnostic assessments, I'm sure.
RL: Yes. He had actually been in the hospital. One evening I came home and he was holding his arm. His hand was swollen and his elbow was swollen and he was limping because he had swelling in his ankles. He was in the hospital for a couple of days and then he continued to smolder afterwards. He was very weak. We sent some serum to New York to a physician who was doing research. Was this a rheumatic fever episode? The data that came back didn't indicate that. I heard him crying at night and went into his room. He was crying because of pain in his back. A couple of nights this went on. He sat up just sobbing. I had him lie back down and I reached under his arms just checking him out. He had big swollen lymph nodes, and in his neck and groin. It scared me to death. I thought, is this something like leukemia? Is there something going on in the bones? I went to his pediatrician with him, and he was anemic. I voiced my anxiety and his pediatrician was not very consoling. That really made me worry. So I was just walking the streets that night praying, just calling out to God. I needed help. Two days later was when this man just suddenly showed up on my doorstep.
RW: A man just showed up on your doorstep?
RL: It was a little more than that. He called me first of all on the telephone. He said, I've just come up from the El Paso area. I've come up to a meeting. I met your mom a year before. This story sort of emerged. He didn't plan to come to Albuquerque. It was the 4th of July holiday. He had felt compelled to come to Albuquerque. Some friends of his had called him from Albuquerque where they were in a meeting. They said, "You really need to be here."
RW: That's what his friends told him?
RL: Yes. They told him it was a great meeting. So he prayed about it and he thought, maybe that's right. So he did something he'd never done before. He got out on the highway and he hitch-hiked.
RW: Had you ever met this man before?
RL: I'd never met him.
RW: Was he an American?
RL: He was a retired Presbyterian minister. What had happened is that when he got to Albuquerque and was in this meeting...
RW: Who was he meeting with? Do you know?
RL: It was some religious seminar of some sort. And while he was sitting there in the seminar he thought, this isn't what I was led to come here for.
RW: He had felt something was so important that he hitch-hiked. Here's a guy, you say he was retired?
RL: He was in his late forties.
RW: Okay. I presume more or less a middleclass-type person.
RW: So that's sort of startling.
RL: Well, it was scary for him. He said he'd never done it before in his life.
RW: Well, now, that's amazing!
RL: He got out on the highway and the first car picked him up and took him right to Albuquerque [laughs].
RW: So I just want to pause here for a moment. This isn't a low income, itinerant person.
RL: No. He was very afraid of hitch-hiking. He didn't want to do it, actually, but he thought it was the only way he could go and let his family have the car for this 4th of July weekend.
RW: So he felt this very strongly, that he should go.
RL: Yes. And he got to Albuquerque and was in the meeting and sensing it couldn't be the reason he'd come. Then he started to pray again. And for some reason, he told me later, my mother's face came to him. He remembered that he'd met my mom a year before riding on a train, riding down from Colorado to Albuquerque when she was coming down to visit me. He thought, hmmm, I wonder if I'm supposed to go to Colorado to see her? But then he remembered her son was in Albuquerque. He called me on the phone. His name is Ed, by the way. When he called me, I remembered my mom having told me about this guy, that he was such a beautiful, spiritual human being. She said, if he ever calls, please get in touch with him.
So when he called, I said, "Come on over." And when he got to the house, I blurted all this stuff out. I told him what was happening. He smiled and said, "Now I know why I'm here."
The interesting thing was that a friend of his, who was a well-to-do owner of a car dealership in Phoenix called Ed's wife and told her, "You know, I've been getting this sense that I should be sending your husband to Albuquerque for some reason. It's crazy. It's been going on for four days! This feeling I needed to get in touch with him for something in Albuquerque."
She said, "He's already in Albuquerque!"
Then this man from Phoenix called his friend on the phone and asked, "What's going on?" Ed said he didn't know but told him what was happening. Then his friend said, "I know you don't have money to get back home, so I'm sending you money to fly to Phoenix for a visit and then I'll fly you back to El Paso."
So that was another twist to the whole story.
RW: That's fascinating. So he shows up at your door. You blurt everything out and he says, now I know why I came.
RL: That's right. He said there's something I have to do at my hotel. Why don't you come over and we'll visit for a while. Then tomorrow I'll come over and I'd like to pray for your son and your family.
We went over to his hotel and my oldest son, Robbie, not the one who was sick, was home with a baby sitter. I left her the phone number of the hotel and while we were visiting, the baby sitter called and said Robbie is really having trouble. He's crying and has incredible pain in his belly. He's moaning and rolling around. I could hear him in the background. The baby sitter was really worried. I told her I'd be right home.
Ed said, "Just a minute. Before you leave, let's just pray for your son." He just said, "Lord I ask that you take care of Robbie right now and take away his pain. Thank you. Amen." Just like that [laughs].
I walked out and my response was gosh, it sounded like-it wasn't a demand; it wasn't would you please? It was just so assured, like you're going to do this for me. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
We got home and I walked in. I didn't hear anything, no crying. My son was lying on the couch asleep. I said to the babysitter, "What's going on?" She said, when you hung up the phone, he just turned over and went to sleep.
And that was it.
RL: Well, the next day, Ed came over and he sat with us and prayed for Rob, the oldest son, and he prayed for Stephen. Then he prayed for me that God would do some special spiritual opening in my life. And he had this beautiful prayer language. It was like what they talk about in Corinthians. He spoke in tongues. And that was it.
He left. We thanked him very much. It was a beautiful setting, and it was so peaceful.
RW: He didn't spend time alone with your son?
RL: No. We were all there together. And he put his hands on him, on his back. He laid hands on him and prayed out loud for him, prayed, as he said "in the spirit." It was very beautiful, just very touching. We felt this wonderful sense of peace and a sort of assurance. There was nothing dramatic.
That was on a Sunday. Then, on Monday, I'm driving home and I round the corner and here is my son, Steve, running down the street chasing his friend, Terry. They're having some kind of game. I was appalled. I stopped the car in the middle of the street. He was racing down the street and I rushed over and grabbed him by the shoulders and said, "Steve, you shouldn't be doing this! Don't you know, you're sick?" [laughs] I never will forget that. "Don't you know you're sick?"
He pulled away from me. He said, "Dad, I'm fine. Leave me alone!"
I just sort of stood there. And there he went running down the street with Terry. I went into the house and Joanne said, "He's been fine all day." That was it.
RW: There was no relapse.
RW: Just like that?
RL: Just like that. This made such a profound impression on me that I realized we'd been touched by God. It changed my life. Then I started thinking, out of gratitude, what is my response? What should I be doing now, or what is expected of me? That's when New Heart got started. It's a service organization where we try to work with people who have heart disease, and to help prevent that. That's how we started, a little bit at a time.
RW: So that was quite a while ago.
RL: Thirty-five years.
RW: You realized something truly deep had happened, so deep you turned and really examined your own life. This really changed your views, right?
RW: Had you been a church person before then? [yes] Tell me a little about your own background in terms of your religious beliefs, if you don't mind.
RL: I had been involved with the church in a variety of ways. And I'd been looking for some healing in my own life, looking for sort of an anchor to hold onto. I had gone to Thailand to work in the Presbyterian Church for a couple of years. And yet that was not as satisfying as I'd hoped it would be. There was sort of an unsettledness. Is this all there is to it? -sort of thing. I was looking for something more.
Then I'd come back and had finished my residency and was working at the university.
RW: So back how you responded to this miraculous event. We would have to call it miraculous, wouldn't we?
RL: Oh, absolutely! And it made me, I was a little over the top for awhile.
RW: What do you mean?
RL: I would be, [laughs] I was so incredibly-then a couple of things happened after that. I had some really sick patients in the hospital. I remember one man. He'd been in a coma for days after a heart operation. I called Ed on the telephone and asked, would you pray for him now? So he prayed over the phone. This man was in the intensive care unit, and he woke up! [laughs]
It wasn't my patient. It was my partner's patient. And I was so thrilled-and it was like, well I knew that was going to happen. I was expecting that! My partner was down at a medical meeting and I was so excited I jumped into my car and drove down to this meeting and I said, "Jerry, your patient awakened!" He said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "well I got Ed and Ed prayed for him over the phone."
My partner said, "Dick, you've got to stop this!" He said, "You're a little over the top. You're embarrassing us quite a bit. Stop it."
That split me away from them. And it was just the right thing to do. That's what led to this New Heart organization.
RW: This man in the coma just woke up.
RL: Yes. And several things like that happened.
RW: What were some of the other things?
RL: There was another man who was quite sick. There was a patient that I'd done a heart catheterization on. He had a blockage in one of the arteries and we operated on him in the middle of the night. I thought this was a wonderful thing that was happening. But the surgeon said, "I'm not sure this is working. I'm not sure we're going to get him out of the inter-aortic balloon pump." It was like one o'clock in the morning and I called Ed again. I said, "Ed, pray for this guy." I thought he had a special connection. He prayed for him and the man did get off the pump-oxygenator and he was sick for a couple of days, but he made it. He came around. So I was seeing manifestations. I was thinking this is something at a higher level than I ever believed. God is so concerned about us as human beings that he wants to provide this, but we're just not asking. That's when I started asking, what can I do? Where do you want me to go?
Slowly, gradually, I got involved with several people who had expertise in the area of exercise physiology at the university. One was the chairman of the department and the other was an exercise physiologist. I said, "Can we start a program of physical activities to rehabilitate people after a heart attack?" In those days, there was just some early evidence that this was beneficial, that running or jogging after a heart attack could be helpful. Initially I thought that was kind of weird. But we started that gently in a junior high gymnasium down the street from the hospital three nights a week. People would come in and walk around the gym. When they got strong enough to run, there was a track outside.
We started with twelve patients and then it grew and it grew. Then I began to feel there was a real opportunity for a major prevention/rehabilitation program. We had started a non-profit organization and we saw a piece of property that looked like it was a great potential spot. We went out on this property to look at it and-this sounds kind of kooky, something that I had never done before-I just happened to have my pocket testament in my coat. You've heard stories of people opening the Bible and putting a finger on a page. It's crazy. But I felt overwhelmed to open my testament. I looked down at the page where I'd put my finger and it said, "Wait on the Lord and keep to His way and He will exult you to possess the land." This thirty acre piece of land came available at such a low price, because they thought there were some problems with the land, that we purchased it for one of these assessment fees of two dollars an acre. We ended up having to pay five hundred thousand dollars for it. But we sold off ten acres and that paid for the whole thing. So we had this beautiful piece of property. What we did then was we partnered with the hospital. We said, we'll give you the land if you'll build the facility. They built a forty thousand square foot facility for exercise rehabilitation.
That came to pass and then it wasn't working out quite right. They wouldn't allow me to do certain things I thought I should do. I was an administrator half-time and doing my cardiology practice half-time. After a few months of going back and forth with the hospital we both agreed that this wasn't working out, so I said, we'll leave.
We did, and it was sort of like the death of a vision. It was sad, but then Meg and I started looking at other options. We started in a small location again. It was growing and this one gentleman who was a wealthy entrepreneur in the community was one of our patients. I challenged him by asking if he would help us. I told him there was a wonderful potential to improve the health of this community and maybe extend that to larger areas in the state. Would you help us with this? He said, "I'll give you a hundred thousand dollars." I screwed up my courage and said, "We would like to ask you for a million dollars." I took maybe thirty seconds more explaining all the possible benefits and he said, "Okay."
Next week there was a check for a million dollars. After that he said, "You know this place where you're thinking of building is not a good spot. I've found this property and it's really wonderful. It's in a better location than where you're thinking of going. I bought it and you can have it if you'll build on it. I bought it for $800,000 dollars." He says once the new hotel goes in it will be worth a million. So we started planning with the architects and it looked like it was going well, but then he came along and looked at the plans and said, "This isn't going to be nearly enough for what you need to do. Here's another million dollars."
RW: Oh, my gosh!
RL: It was amazing! Later on when we got rolling he said, 'You know, you're a good doctor, but as a business man, you're not very good. I've hired these two ladies to come alongside of you to help with marketing and doing some other things to help getting this out into the community more."
RW: What is his name?
RL: His name was Blake Chanslor. He owned Blake's Lottaburger in New Mexico.
RW: So you built this beautiful place. And you ran it, I take it.
RL: I still am. So there was the death of a vision and then the birth of a vision. And now we own this building free and clear. We own the land that it's on. As a non-profit organization, New Heart, we're just barely breaking even. For example, Meg is a full time volunteer.
We can see that this was an ideal place for us to be in this particular community. It's near the downtown part of Albuquerque where we can be very beneficial and helpful in the neighborhoods there.
RW: When was the building completed?
RL: Six years ago. So this was the rebirth of a vision. Clearly this is a much better place than we were before even though it's a smaller facility. It's right in the middle of the action. It's interesting that we're now being found by more businesses and more people who say we didn't know about you before.
RW: Would you say that this was and is a pioneering facility?
RL: Yes. And now what is so exciting, Richard, is we're starting to see that there is so much potential, not only potential, but a concern that the society as we know it today in America, the incidence of heart disease continues to climb. We do a better job of taking care of people who have heart attacks and the mortality has gone down because of heart surgery, angioplasty and that sort of thing, but the incidence of heart disease keeps climbing. For example, it's the number one disease in our society. We have more people with heart disease than the entire population of Canada. Children who are born in the year 2000 will not live as long as their parents because of obesity and the diabetes which follows after and so forth. The life expectancy in the U.S. is about thirtieth in the world. It's somewhere around 76, 77. But in other countries it's like 82, 84 years.
The infant mortality in our country is high, higher than in some of the South American countries. So we don't have the best health care system. We have a good disease care system, but we're not helping health. So that's the direction we're interested in.
RW: Here's a hypothetical question. Heart disease continues to be on the rise. We can point to various objective factors like obesity, diet etc, but do you think there's something about the culture in terms of cultural values, something embedded in the culture that is an inner factor, you might even say that there's a deficit in heart. Ours is not a society that tends to help people live a heartfelt life. Something is lacking. Our hearts are compromised in some inner way. Does my question make sense?
RL: Yes. I think that what you're suggesting is something that we will learn more about in the future. We'll learn that people who are more loving, more compassionate and more thoughtful, more connected are less likely to have disease. There is some data that suggests that things like being angry, being depressed, even being lonely, particularly when in a couple the wife dies and the man continues to live, the mortality in that situation is higher. There is a social construct behind a lot of this.
RW: I understand that you spend some of your time in India. Would you say something about that?
RL: My father in law has been at the University of Michigan for a number of years and he met Doctor Venkataswamy over thirty years ago. He's been going over there to volunteer at Aravind Eye Hospital for the last thirty-five years or so.
RW: Is that connected with Auroville?
RL: There is a hospital in Pondicherry, which is near Auroville. They started with one hospital and now have grown to five hospitals. Doctor Venkataswamy started Aravind in Madurai. My father in law has worked with them as a consultant, a volunteer, spending four to six weeks every year. As part of that, we've gotten involved with the family and going to India to visit. I've shared some things with them. But I've been the one who has gotten the benefit from this. I haven't given much. I might give a few talks on heart disease, but I've received much more than I could possibly have given. It's one of those situations where you gain so much. I've asked them what I can do this year and I'm waiting for some guidance there from the administrator.
Now here's the great thing. People who are seen in India, people who are blind, they come to the hospital. They might be blind in one eye or two eyes. They get operated on and they receive their sight. That's the first level of getting sight. But there is a second level. Many of the people there, the doctors grew up in little villages nearby. As children they got imbued with the vision of becoming physicians and many of them have. They've gone to medical school and then gone to the U.S. to get additional training. Now, in just one generation, they are eye surgeons doing an incredible amount of work, maybe forty cases a day, incredible, beautiful, high-quality work. They got another kind of vision. Then there are people like myself who come and see what others have done with limited resources, but with a conscious push and that somehow leads one to ask, is there something more that I might be able to do as a human being? To give more? So that's a third level of new vision.
So these are all levels of getting a new sight. It's a beautiful feeling. It's like being here in San Francisco with this family [the Mehtas] over the weekend. It feels like the afterburner on my rocket has gotten turned on [laughs].
RW: So what are some of the things that have turned on the afterburner in relation to being with part of the CharityFocus family?
RL: There are so many different things, seeing Viral and Pavi and their dedication, meeting people like yourself, people who are trying to make a difference. It's almost like everyone I've met here-it's like I'm on information overload. I've been on intake, intake, intake. Now I have to step back and assess. I sense it's the kind of thing that might help me steer in a new direction and do some additional things myself. I can't exactly put my finger on it.
RW: Now I'm not altogether clear about Dr. Venkataswamy. Is Pavi related to him?
RL: Yes. Doctor V, as he's affectionately called. Pavi could tell you much more about him. At age fifty-five or fifty-six he retired from government service as an ophthalmologist and he started a small, five or six bed eye hospital. The people he started it with were his five siblings. Then that hospital in Madurai grew. It just grew and expanded into five cities. They've now done things like-they manufacture intraocular lenses. When people have cataract surgery the replacement lenses are expensive. So they've developed their own manufacturing of these lenses. If you had to buy them in this country they'd cost something like fifty dollars. They can make them and charge two dollars and fifty cents. They're doing incredible things. That's just one of many things.
RW: Well, to go back for a minute to New Heart. You told me some inspiring stories that came from your own experiences with patients at your own clinic. Would you say something about that?
RL: One thing I've learned is that people learn more from one another, particularly patients learn more from another person who has had the same problem than they do from me telling them something. To give an example-years ago, when we were still in the junior high gymnasium, we were going to give a class. We do a lot of education classes. Twenty five of us were gathered for one of these classes and I got this idea: wouldn't it be good to have Paul come in. He'd had a heart attack and bypass surgery less than a year earlier and now he was running four miles on the track three times a week. So I said, "Paul, come in and talk with these people for a few minutes. Let them know how you're doing and what you feel now and how you felt after the surgery and so on." He started to talk, and it was one of those things that was palpable. You could feel how those twenty-five people just focused on him. He continued to talk and they'd ask questions. It was exciting and they were getting their answers from somebody who had had the disease. I almost thought, wait, I'm supposed to give a lecture. But some voice said, be quiet. He's one of them and you're not.
So we've now identified about twenty-five or thirty people who have come through New Heart and who have inspiring stories. We're hoping to get some of them published and have picked three to send off to a publisher. Just to give an idea is, the first one is of a man, seventy-three. He had a heart attack and angioplasty. He went to his doctor and said his friends were going on an eleven-day hiking and camping trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. He wanted to go with them. The doctor said, "You can't do that." The man said, "Well, I'm going anyway. And I'm going to get into training for it." I've got pictures of him, seventy-three, carrying a fifty-pound back pack hiking up, maybe it was Mount Whitney. He was later camping in the snow. We have exciting pictures of what he did.
The second story is about a man who was a PhD in Engineering. He had a major heart attack. He collapsed and passed out at home. They carried him to the hospital where he collapsed again. They did emergency angioplasty and took him on to surgery where they kept him on an aortic balloon pump overnight and for the next day or so. He was that impaired. When he first came to our building, he could hardly walk around. He got stronger and stronger. Weeks and months went by. This is not about us. It's about him. It's about people. As the months went on, his son said to him, "Let's try doing some biking." So they started doing that. Then they started biking into the mountains near Albuquerque. Then his son said, "Dad, there's this wonderful bicycle race from Durango to Silverton, twenty-five miles, that goes over two eleven thousand foot passes. We've got photos of him doing this. It took him nine and a half hours, riding in that packed group of cyclists.
The last one is an engineer, also. He had a heart attack and bypass surgery. So all these people had heart surgery. A couple of years after that, he and his friends who had been doing a lot of bicycling around Albuquerque decided that they would walk across Great Britain. It was 210 miles the way they did it. They hiked and camped out every night. They did it in twelve days. We've got photos of that, too.
So do you want to get better? Do you want to get stronger? It's possible!
RW: Those are exciting stories. What do you see for the future for yourself and for New Heart? Do you have a vision?
RL: Yes. I'm concerned, and it's my strong belief that New Heart must and will continue long past me. I believe there is more that can happen. As we learn more about what causes heart disease and the potential things that can be done to modify it, the possibilities of making major societal changes and the economic importance of that, too. From society's standpoint, the cost of heart disease is going up so dramatically that if we don't really manage this in a better way, it's going to have a major impact. Now the economic potential of getting better health is really, really important. Can we turn this disease-developing machine that we call our country, can we change this paradigm to being more healthy. And being more healthy, can we reduce health care costs? And reducing health care costs, can we limit the erosion on our society? This has become a total social concern.
RW: We know there are several things we need to do for better health like improve our diet, cut way down on smoking and so on, but do you think there is any possible role in all of this for, let's say a higher vision? CharityFocus has a higher vision, for instance, rooted in a belief that there's something intrinsically right about service, about compassion. Do you think there's a possible role for a vision of a higher good?
RL: I think that's an incredibly good question, and a very important one. I think it will be important to try to think about that and tease it out. How to get such a paradigm inserted into this equation? It's something that's going to take a lot of thought. It may be the reason why I've been here, to stimulate that kind of thinking. It's a very important question.