The Extraordinary Life and Character of Dr. Ellsworth Wareham

Imagine being 95 years old while still being able to mow the lawn and walk up and down flights of stairs and working as a heart surgeon.  Meet Dr. Ellsworth Wareham, the centenarian cardiothoracic surgeon and apple farmer from Loma Linda, California. 

Many people have heard of Dr. Ellsworth Wareham because he has been interviewed by National Geographic, The Dr. Oz Show, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and has appeared in documentaries about longevity because he was over 100 years old, worked as a prominent cardiothoracic surgeon until the age of 95, and was a vegan for over 50 years. He passed away in 2018 at the age of 104.  His list of accomplishments includes being one of the first surgeons to perform open heart surgery in California, mentoring the heart surgeon who conducted the first baboon to human heart transplant, was the Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Loma Linda University in California, and brought teams of heart surgeons to Vietnam, Pakistan, and other areas of the world.  His many accomplishments have been documented in the Loma Linda University archives.  Even with his long list of accolades and his recognition, very little has been documented about his honorable character and that is what made him an astounding individual.

 Dr. Hans Diehl, the founder and director of the Lifestyle Medicine Institute and Clinical Professor at the School of Medicine at Loma Linda University, was an esteemed colleague and neighbor of Dr. Wareham.  Dr. Diehl states that Dr. Wareham had an astonishing amount of humility despite his tremendous skills. He tells a story about interviewing Dr. Wareham at the American College of Lifestyle Medicine annual conference in 2015. He asked Dr. Wareham about the stress levels associated with heart surgery.

Dr. Wareham responded, “There is no stress if you know what you are doing.”

Dr. Diehl stated, “Well you must be highly skilled!”

Dr. Wareham downplayed his skill level and laughingly replied, “I could train a monkey to do the surgeries!”

Photo: Dr. Ellsworth Wareham being interviewed by Dr. Hans Diehl at the Lifestyle Medicine Conference in 2015. Photo Credit: American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

Dr. Wareham’s ability to manage stress was part of what made him a great surgeon and unique individual.  His son Robert recalls that his father observed a sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday with few exceptions.   During their observed sabbath, the family often went on nature walks and hiked the hills around their home.   This regular practice ensured an opportunity to decompress from the work week and gave him an opportunity to connect with his family.   

His humility may be because he came from very humble beginnings.  He was the second of 5 children from a very poor farming family.  The Texas family migrated to Canada during the depression era for work and there are photos of Dr. Wareham farming barefoot. Dr. Wareham’s parents could not afford to send him to college, so he sold bibles door-to-door to pay for medical school.  After completing medical school and his residency, he paid for his three brothers to attend dental school to become dentists.

His brothers were not the only people that Dr. Wareham helped.  Giving to others was an important part of who he was.  He personally asked medical equipment and pharmaceutical companies to donate supplies to the Loma Linda University International Heart Institute so they could perform surgeries in countries that did not have heart surgeons.  In fact, he successfully secured the services of TigerAir to ship the supplies overseas at no cost and would personally load up the supplies in a rented truck and bring them to the airport for transport. Because of Dr. Wareham’s efforts, compassion for others, and philanthropic nature, people that needed open heart surgery in other countries were able to receive surgery when that may not have otherwise been possible. On top of his work with gathering medical supplies for other countries, he tithed to his church faithfully and funded organizations that he believed in.  A finely skilled and highly compensated surgeon could have afforded any car that he wanted but instead drove an old station wagon for many years. He put others before himself as a rule.

 Another important aspect of Dr. Wareham’s character was his work ethic.  In addition to working until he was age 95, he did work at his homestead.  In 1964, he purchased a home with a large apple orchard in the lush hills of Oak Glenn California that the family still owns today.  He did not want his kids to just be spoiled doctors’ kids and wanted them to understand the value of hard work.  During apple season, there was a tremendous amount of work planting, weeding, cultivating, and processing the apples.  The entire family participated in the work surrounding the orchard including making apple cider and sorting apples. Dr. Wareham was a big part of those chores and even mowed his own lawn.

Photo: Orchard property in Oak Glen California, photo courtesy City of Oak Glen.

Dr. Wareham’s son Robert describes his father as highly principled. During World War II, Dr. Wareham served in the U.S. Navy.  Part of his job was to board foreign medical ships to ensure that they were indeed medical ships and not disguised war ships.  During one inspection of a ship full of soldiers disguised as a medical vessel, the soldiers were arrested and their weapons, including swords, were confiscated.  Dr. Wareham held onto those swords and tried to return as many of them as possible to the families of the soldiers just as a matter of principle.  Robert states that his father “had a strong sense of right and wrong and always chose ethics over money.”   Robert also recalls overhearing conversations that his father had with colleagues wherein Dr. Wareham was adamant about always doing the right thing. Principles and ethics drove his daily decisions and was apparent by the life he lived as a 50-year vegan, devoted to this Seventh Day Adventist faith, and the actions he took to ensure that he always did what was right by others.

A testament to Dr. Wareham’s character is his remarkable wife Barbara who stood by him for 68 years until his death, along with their children.  Barbara held much responsibility for their 5 children, cared for the family home, and organized the many social events that the Wareham’s created. Barbara was also a nurse who traveled with her husband to train surgeons overseas. Their son Robert believes that Dr. Wareham would have never attained his accomplishments without Barbara.  The byproduct of this amazing couple is their five, very independent and accomplished children. Their oldest son Martin is a head and neck surgeon, their son Robert is an attorney, their daughter Julie is a psychiatrist, their son John (Rusty) was in healthcare administration, and their son Brian Scott, who passed away prematurely, was an entrepreneur with a law degree. Their offspring, and the fact that Barbara stood by him for so many years are indicators of his solid character.

Dr. Ellsworth Wareham was most certainly a highly skilled and accomplished surgeon.  Few surgeons have accomplished what he did in his lifetime.  However, humility, ability to put other people before himself,  ability to manage stress, tremendous work ethic, lifelong philanthropy, principled sense of right and wrong, and strong family connections, are what best describes the character of the person who was Ellsworth Wareham.

YouTube Video: Dr. Sanjay Gupta interview of Dr. Ellsworth Wareham, video courtesy CNN via the Kinder World YouTube channel. YouTube video link: https://youtu.be/hGQTpxjbwaM

Sources:

Please note that the author of this essay, Jeffrey Tritten (Blog owner of ARespectfulLife.com), personally interviewed Dr. Hans Diehl, and Robert Wareham for the creation of this essay.  Photos and video were found on the internet and properly ascribed.

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