From a very young age, Jeremy Leidenfrost wanted to be just like his dad.
He even has pictures to prove it.
A photograph snapped on a Halloween in the early 1980s shows little Jeremy dressed in green scrubs and a pint-sized doctor’s coat — and wearing a fake mustache.
Except for two lollipops he’s clutching, Jeremy’s a pint-sized version of his dad, Dr. Ron Leidenfrost, who today is chief of cardiothoracic surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield.
Being like Dad took more than imitation. To become a successful heart surgeon, one must commit years to study, practice and hard work.
But Jeremy, the oldest of five children, enjoyed a built-in advantage. He had more than 30 years to watch and learn from his father, who devoted long hours to mending hearts, often sacrificing days and nights away from his growing family.
Sometimes, when Ron studied for the surgical boards, little Jeremy would sit in his dad’s lap, peering into the opened textbook.
Today, the 69-year-old father and his 37-year-old son work side by side at St. Luke’s.
“If one Leidenfrost is good, two is better,” says Ron, who recently gained the additional job of chairman of St. Luke’s Heart and Vascular Institute — a position created this year after the center became a cardiac care affiliate of the famed Cleveland Clinic.
The two men trained in two different eras, learning different techniques and styles, but that makes them better together, they say.
“We complement each other,” Ron said of the two different styles. And they play to their strengths: Jeremy focuses on the newer, minimally invasive procedures, and Ron focuses on high-risk open heart procedures.
And their patients seem to get a kick out of the father-son team.
“When I’m on call for the weekend and I’m rounding, I say, ‘I’m Dr. Leidenfrost’ and if they didn’t already know they look at me and, I say, ‘I’m the son,’” Jeremy said. “Everybody thinks it’s neat.”
Jeremy joined the hospital two years ago, after completing his residency training at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, just like his father did 31 years before him. However, Jeremy had spent many years at St. Luke’s training under his father as a surgical fellow for a few months out of the year.
Before deciding to work together, the two agreed to one rule: There would be no yelling.
Sue Scego, executive director of the Heart and Vascular Institute and a longtime colleague of Ron’s, said the fact that the two surgeons are related allows them to speak frankly.
“I think when you have a partner relationship you tend to maybe hold back, but when it’s familial, it’s all out on the table,” she said.
And that tough talk helps patients, Scego said.
saved my life’
On Wednesday, the two Drs. Leidenfrost, in green matching scrubs, were planted in front of a bank of computer screens, reviewing various images before the day’s cases.
Ron, with his salt-and-pepper hair, was squinting down his nose through his bifocals analyzing the black-and-white images on the screen. He and Jeremy were trying to decide whether a patient should proceed with an aortic valve replacement.
“I’m not sure it’s bad enough,” Jeremy said of the valve.
After some discussion, they decided to hold off on the scheduled surgery, opting to manage the issue with medicine for now.
From there, the two went down the hall to check in on a patient who initially had a grim prognosis.
Jase Travis, 57, suffered a tear in his aorta, a very serious condition that is often fatal.
“A lot of people don’t even make it to the hospital,” Jeremy said. But Travis did — and he was rushed into surgery. The Leidenfrosts replaced a portion of his aorta and aortic valve.
“These guys saved my life,” said Travis, who lives in unincorporated St. Louis County near Des Peres.
On Wednesday, Travis was being discharged — and Ron and Jeremy were there to explain to him and his wife, Beth, what they should expect in the coming months of recovery.
The avid fitness buff will eventually be able to return to normal activities, but heavy lifting is out.
“No more cellphone,” Ron quipped.
‘He has your best interests at heart’
Growing up, Jeremy remembers his dad was gone a lot.
Toni Leidenfrost, Jeremy’s mother and Ron’s wife, said her oldest son typically only got to see his dad on the weekends.
Ron always put his patients first, above almost everything else and many times the family included, Jeremy said.
“As a heart surgeon, you’re literally on call all the time if you really want to take care of your patients,” Ron said. “If I’m in town, I’m on call for my patients.”
When Jeremy got older and understood what his dad really did while he was away, he grew an appreciation for his father’s work.
“I would come in and watch and see how he interacted with his patients, and I would see how grateful his patients were to him for saving their lives. I think that’s probably what did it,” Jeremy said of his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“He gravitated toward heart surgery because I think he appreciated the job satisfaction that I got out of it,” Ron said.
As much as he admired his father, Jeremy wasn’t sure about joining St. Luke’s, worrying he’d be working in his father’s shadow.
But having his father as both his mentor and partner has proved crucial for Jeremy’s career.
“If you don’t have good mentorship, you can be totally destroyed,” he said. “Your career can end before it even starts, and I know plenty of people that it’s happened to.
“You know that he has your best interests at heart, so that’s the benefit,” he said.
Dr. Richard Lee, co-director of the Center for Comprehensive Cardiovascular Care at St. Louis University Hospital, agreed.
“Small mistakes are big mistakes in cardiac surgery,” he said. That’s why it’s so important to have a senior partner that’s fully invested in your career and success.
“Who would be better than your own dad?”
Still, Jeremy and Ron don’t always agree.
“They trained in different decades, so I keep having to tell my husband that Jeremy has something to teach you just like you have things to teach Jeremy,” Toni said.
For example, Jeremy sews bypasses counterclockwise. Ron sews his clockwise. It’s just a different style; one is not necessarily better than the other, they say.
“It’s not what problems you have doing your jobs, or what differences arise, or what bad things happen. It’s how you handle those bad things. If you handle them well, you get good results,” Ron said.
Samantha Liss • 314-340-8017
@samanthann on Twitter