Robert O. Hickman, '57

Harry C. Knipp, '76

In 1973, the Utah
native developed a
catheter that bears his name and helped
revolutionize the delivery of medication,
intravenous fluids, blood, and nutrition to bone
marrow transplant
patients.

 

Pioneering Central Venous Access

Fifty years ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower occupied the White House, Gunsmoke captivated television audiences, and the Russians launched Sputnik. In Baltimore a fresh-faced physician graduated from medical school and began a career that would put an indelible mark on medicine. His name: Dr. Robert O. Hickman.

His plans were hardly grandiose. He and wife Lucy already had three (of their six) children, and they dreamed of moving back to Utah to open a practice in pediatrics. “Events just carried us along,” Hickman says.

Hickman’s career has been anything but routine. He was part of a team that put the first patient in the world on kidney dialysis and broke ground developing catheters and shunts. In 1973, the Utah native developed a catheter that bears his name and helped revolutionize the delivery of medication, intravenous fluids, blood, and nutrition to bone marrow transplant patients. “They had to call it something,” says Hickman, ’57, who is reluctant to take credit for his work. “They named it after me because they didn’t think it was going to work.”

The “Hickman” catheter has become a mainstay in hospitals around the world. It’s so popular that Hickman, age 80, has been immortalized with an entry in Wikipedia, the popular encyclopedia of the World Wide Web under, the “Hickman Line.” What’s more, the University of Washington and the University of Washington Medical Center have established a chair in his name. And Hickman has been selected to receive the Medical Alumni Association’s 2007 Honor Award & Gold Key, awarded since 1948 for outstanding medical accomplishments and distinguished service to mankind. “It is very humbling,” says Hickman. “I obviously recognize that there are people who are more deserving. Much of my success was due to sheer luck. For most others it comes through hard work.”

Hickman’s introduction to medicine was through his family’s physician. One of five children, he grew up in Cache Valley in northern Utah. When one of his siblings or parents fell ill, the family’s doctor was at the front door ready to help. He made sure the children watched him in action. When Hickman’s older brother contracted meningitis, Hickman sat in on the spinal taps performed almost every day.

When his father came down with strep throat, the children stood patiently in line waiting for their turn to examine their father’s inflamed throat. His father, an insurance salesman, dabbled in home remedies, too. “He was a doctor wannabe,” Hickman says. He made mustard plasters for the children when they had colds, swabbed throats with a silver compound, and made nose drops and sweet gargles. “He tried to crush the bugs or drown the bugs,” Hickman says. And despite running a strict Mormon household, Hickman’s mother administered a syrup to cure whooping cough with a special ingredient—a splash of bourbon.

After receiving a graduate degree in anatomy in 1953 from the University of Utah, Hickman moved east to Maryland and earned his medical degree four years later. He did an internship at the University of Utah in pediatrics at County General Hospital in Salt Lake City, and from 1958 to 1960 received residency training in pediatrics at University of Washington Hospitals in Seattle.
He quickly became interested in helping children with kidney disease and joined the University of Washington’s nephrology division where he met Dr. Belding Scribner, a dialysis pioneer. Scribner developed shunts and catheters that were surgically implanted into patients with chronic kidney disease and a variety of other ailments.

In the mid-1960s, the team developed an ultra-thin central venous catheter to feed people intravenously. “The response from patients was one of the most dramatic things I have ever seen,” says Hickman. “It was like a resurrection.” The catheter, named after Dr. John Broviac, was a stunning success.

But further refinements were made. Nurses wanted a multipurpose catheter that had a bigger line, could deliver chemotherapy, draw blood, and feed patients intravenously. Hickman worked hard to meet their demands, and in 1973 the “Hickman” catheter was born. The catheter was crucial in treating oncology patients. “The nurses saw a huge benefit,” Hickman says. “They grabbed the doctors by the shoulders and shook them and said, ‘Look, this is helping your patients; this is actually a Godsend.’”

Robert O. Hickman, '57Now, approaching his 50-year medical school reunion, Hickman has no plans to retire. His work at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which is part of the University of Washington’s Medical Center, starts at 7:30 am, and he is out of the hospital by about 3 pm. Some days he works on as many as five cases.

When he is not working, Hickman skis and is active in his church. In 1991, he took a three-year sabbatical to serve as a church mission president. Seven years later, he took a second sabbatical as the camp doctor for the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center administering to about 800 students.

  “I am going to work as long as my hand is steady, and my head is clear,” Hickman says. “Physicians go home every night knowing that we’ve made a little bit of a difference. When we have difficulties and patients suffer, it burns to the core.”

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