In 1953, a surgeon in Philadelphia performed a landmark open-heart procedure.
As the world marveled at the first successful bypass operation, a preternaturally confident boy in Jersey City took note of the acclaim. Constantine Mavroudis can still recall reading articles about the procedure in the likes of Look magazine.
Working at his father’s restaurant across from Jersey City Medical Center, Mavroudis RC’68 would watch wide eyed as doctors and nurses reported to work. He started reading anatomy books and even diagnosed his own bout of appendicitis.
By the time he completed the eighth grade, Mavroudis had no doubts about his destiny. “I was going to be a surgeon,” he says. “I saw firsthand what it was like, and I knew I could do it.”
And not just any surgeon. Mavroudis became a congenital heart surgeon, operating on infants born with heart defects. He is also a leading authority in the field, serving as editor of the standard textbook on pediatric heart surgery.
Rutgers would play a key role along the way, but not quite in the way he expected. Mavroudis arrived on campus in 1964 as an aspiring physician but soon found himself drawn to the fine arts, the humanities, and sports more than his premed requirements.
“I was still interested in medicine but not particularly interested in physics,” he says. “What I really loved and what I excelled in was art, literature, and music.”
He studied the Greek classics, read Kierkegaard and Sartre, and took Shakespeare courses with Professor Donald McGinn, who required students to memorize lines from Shakespeare’s major works. Mavroudis was also captain of the fencing team.
All those experiences, he says, helped him develop the maturity to become an accomplished surgeon.
“I learned to write, think, and work with others,” he says. “And I carried that through my entire career.”
After earning his medical degree at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, he held prominent positions, including chief of pediatric cardiac surgery at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and surgeon in chief at Children’s Memorial Hospital-Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Typically, he operates on newborns seven to 20 days after their birth to correct defects, such as obstructions and holes in the heart and missing ventricles. At one point, Mavroudis was performing 250 operations a year, often drawing patients from around the world.
It’s a calling that he speaks of in military terms to describe the discipline and rigor involved.
“It’s like commanding a naval warship, where any regard for the self is subordinate to the safety of the crew and ultimate mission,” he says.
But it’s also a calling that requires compassion, humility, and equanimity. A good surgeon knows how to connect with patients’ families, maintain good relationships with staff, and deal with the aftermath of an unsuccessful operation.
“There’s a constant need for truth-telling,” he says. “When bad things happen, you better have built up enough of a relationship with the family to tell them. And then you have to go home and ask yourself, ‘What could I have done better?’”
In 2020, Mavroudis joined the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis as chief of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery. His goal is to spend several years there building up the surgical program and then retire.
At 75, he’s hardly slowed down. He still performs up to 80 operations a year, competes in triathlons all over the world, and recently collaborated on a book on bioethics with his son, Constantine David Mavroudis, also a congenital heart surgeon, and J. Thomas Cook, a professor of philosophy at Rollins College.
Whether he’s operating on an infant’s heart, competing in a triathlon, or exploring the ethical issues of his field, Mavroudis often thinks in terms of the classical Greek ideal of kalos anthropos: the person who has achieved virtue over a lifetime.
He also thinks of his father, who always encouraged him to help others.
“How do you become a good person?” Mavroudis asks. “How do I engage with my colleagues, my patients, and my family? Those thoughts are with me all the time.”