How Heart Surgery Helped Heal an Artist

Norman Durkee Resumes His Life of Art and Music

by Pat Schrepf

The man seated at the piano improvises a piece that sounds like a lesser known work of Debussy. He is bent forward and a walker is parked beside him. The hands of Norman Durkee glide over the keys without effort, seemingly unaffected by the illness that nearly took his life or by his ongoing recovery from surgery to replace two valves in his heart.

As he plays, he says, “I feel a lot better than I did a year ago.”


Norman Durkee (seated) with John Holmes, MD and Mark Hill, MD.

Norman came to Virginia Mason in February 2011. “He was in very bad shape,” recalls Virginia Mason cardiologist John Holmes, MD. “He had biventricular heart failure. Two of his heart valves were leaking because they were being stretched by the enlargement of his heart. His heart wasn’t able to pump efficiently and fluid was backing up in his legs, abdomen and elsewhere. He was carrying 40 or more pounds of excess fluid. He was 64, but looked 84. The outlook wasn’t good.”

Norman is more blunt: “I was at death’s door. In the fall of 2011 I was getting sicker and sicker. I had weird infections and my legs and abdomen were swollen. One hand swelled to the size of a melon.” At that point, he was being seen at another medical center and had been hospitalized there. “I just wasn’t getting any better. I was so weak I couldn’t stand up on my own,” he recalls. An opera singer he works with, Rachel De shon, urged him to see Dr. Holmes.

Dr. Holmes told him he was in urgent need of surgery, but his condition was too poor to handle the stress of a procedure at that point, so he spent two months in the hospital getting rid of fluid and getting stronger. Finally, on March 21, Norman underwent surgery to replace the mitral valve and tricuspid valves in his heart.

According to Mark Hill, MD, the Virginia Mason cardiothoracic surgeon who performed the procedure, “The surgery was long and complicated due to Norman’s debilitated state, poor heart function and scarring around the heart. But it was successful.”

Recovery from illness and surgery has been a long process. Norman spent about a month in the intensive care section of the Critical Care Unit. He had vivid hallucinations as his mind and body struggled with the effects of surgery and medications. These subsided after a time, and he began recovery in earnest. As he gained strength, he began to play an electronic keyboard in his hospital room — to the delight of team members, visitors and other patients. Eventually, he was strong enough to go down to the hospital lobby and play the grand piano there. Putting on a show comes naturally to him. He has been musical director of Teatro Zinzani for the last 12 years.

He spent so long in intensive care that Norman developed close bonds with his caregivers. “I’m extremely grateful for Virginia Mason and all they did for me,” he says. “Dr. Holmes and Dr. Hill are wonderful doctors and the nurses and staff always treated me with kindness and respect.”

To show his appreciation and because music is such an elemental part of his life and recovery, Norman began composing a work he calls the “ICU Suite,” while still hospitalized. He has recorded brief samples of the work in progress. “He has made steady, remarkable progress since surgery,” says Dr. Holmes. “He is doing much better than seemed possible at the beginning of the year.”


Pat Schrepf, communications program manager, wrote this story for the Virginia Mason 2012 Annual Report.


  1. This is a fantastic story about the relationship between doctor and patient. It is good to see that the surgery helped Norman recover. His doctors really went above and beyond to ensure his success.

  2. It’s always inspiring to see a patient recover successfully from his/her illness and has cheated death on multiple occasions. I was able to download and listen to his newest composition “ICU Suite” and I just love how it was fun and feelin’ groovy in my ear. May he live a longer life and compose as many work to inspire more patients who have been suffering heart disease for a long time.

  3. Hi … its good to know that an amazing artist survived from a heart disease … now we all listen more and more music from that great artist.

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