If life were a treadmill for Dr. Robert Bruce, that was a very good thing.
Best known as the inventor of the cardiac treadmill test that has put millions of patients on a path to recovery from heart disease, Bruce died Thursday of leukemia in his Seattle home at age 87.
Bruce, who was the first director of the Division of Cardiology at the University of Washington, headed the division for more than 30 years before retiring in 1982.
As devised by Bruce, the treadmill test was as elegant as it was relentless. Starting slowly, the treadmill increased in pace and inclination every three minutes until no patient was left "unstressed." The test, now known as the Bruce protocol, became an invaluable tool for helping diagnose heart conditions, and even more important, for giving prognostic information, said Dr. Werner Samson, an attending cardiologist at the University of Washington and one of Bruce's first students in 1951.
At the time, the workings of the heart were little more than a black box, but Bruce's passion for the field inspired Samson to pursue it. "He was dedicated to cardiology," he said. "And he was a great teacher."
He was also a rigorous one. Samson spent a fair amount of his own time sweating on the treadmill at Bruce's behest in the interest of science.
When Bruce joined the UW's newly born cardiology department in 1950, doctors had no way to obtain the sophisticated images of blood flow through the heart that they see today.
"Nobody did bypass surgery. Balloon angioplasty and putting stents in -- that didn't exist at that time," he said. "We still put people to bed for four to six weeks after a heart attack because there was nothing much we could do."
Bruce lived to see the development of artificial hearts, transplants and the advent of gene therapy to treat heart disease. Until a week before his death, he was still asking his colleagues, "What's new?" He had also ordered an advanced calculus course that he was taking for entertainment.
Bruce was born in Massachusetts. His father was a meatpacker, and his mother ran a cafe. The grandson of Scottish immigrants, he was the first in his family to go to college, said his son, Peter Bruce.
He attended Boston University and received his medical degree from the University of Rochester in New York. Known as a "smart guy," he was recruited by UW to catalyze a program that eventually made the University of Washington a national center for heart research.
"His major contributions to diagnosis and treatment of heart disease are recognized by all physicians in this country and around the world," said Dr. Paul Ramsey, UW vice president of medical affairs and the dean of the School of Medicine.
Indeed, a cardiologist treating a family member with Bruce in the room once remarked, "I feel like I'm in the presence of the pope."
"He was a household word in our field," said Dr. Richard Page, current cardiology division chairman who holds the Robert A. Bruce chair in cardiovascular research.
Bruce's involvement in heart research didn't end with his retirement. He remained active with the American College of Cardiology and advised groups on exercise and the elderly.
The thrice-married, twice-widowed Bruce also kept love alive into his 80s, marrying Barbara Klemka, a fellow resident of his retirement home, 1 1/2 years ago. He embraced three families as his own, said one of his stepsons, Stuart Laughlin, whose mother married Bruce when he was 80.
"He was really very young at heart," said Carole Brennan, his stepdaughter by his third marriage. "They would go out every day and go for walks. He was a good listener."
"His children by nature and marriage were all really devoted to him," said Page, who organized a prememorial service Wednesday for about 40 family members, friends and colleagues, a gathering that Bruce was able to attend. He died 12 hours later.
White-haired and handsome, Bruce was a tall and distinguished presence who seldom wasted words and was proud of his Scottish heritage.
"He realized the benefits of companionship," Laughlin said. "And having a last chance for happiness."
Bruce taught many lessons to many people throughout his career, but perhaps they are best summed up by one described by his first student.
"After working with him," Samson said, "I realized the heart is an important organ."
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