Obituary: Dr. George A. Liebler / Warm-hearted, prolific cardiothoracic surgeon

Jan. 31, 1937 - May 7, 2009

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For three decades at Allegheny General Hospital, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. George A. Liebler healed patients with a winning medical trifecta of a whip-smart mind, skilled hands and a heartfelt bedside manner.

"He just had fantastic hands and a tremendous knowledge of medicine," said his identical twin brother, Dr. Frederick B. Liebler, of Highland Beach, Fla., who likewise is a cardiothoracic surgeon.

"Not too many people have it all but he had it all -- the skills, intelligence and personality to make someone feel better."

Dr. George Liebler, who was forced to quit practicing in 2001 due to cancer and emphysema, died of complications due to his illnesses Thursday at his Mt. Lebanon home. He was 72.

Dr. George J. McGovern Jr., chairman of AGH's Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, said Dr. Liebler was a prolific cardiothoracic surgeon with expertise in bypass surgery and lung cancer surgery.

"He had a very confident set of hands. He was a very technically gifted surgeon and was a very easygoing surgeon, so he put patients and referring doctors at ease," Dr. McGovern said.

"I learned a lot from him. He was very helpful in the operating room. He had good judgment. He was a calming influence in what was otherwise very stressful surgery."

Dr. Liebler was the first resident to work with Dr. McGovern's father and namesake, a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon who was a pioneer in open heart surgery. The two became partners, complementing each other, the younger Dr. McGovern said.

"He had a very nice sense of humor. He was a nice antidote for my father, who was very high powered and driven. George was much more easy going and could put people at ease. They made a good pair.

"My father developed the operations and Dr. Liebler applied them. He ushered in the golden age of cardiac surgery. In 1972, there were 100 performed at AGH. By 2000, that number had risen to 1,600."

He estimated that Dr. Liebler had performed 5,000 procedures in his career, "and that's a lot."

"He always put his patients first," said Dr. Liebler's wife, Judith. "He really was one of those physicians who cared about his patients. They really loved him."

She said patients would frequently send notes thanking her husbandfor operating on them, sometimes decades later, saying they wouldn't be around anymore if it weren't for him.

"When people would take the time to write and thank him, it really meant a lot to him," she said.

And, she said, his demeanor made nurses love operating with him: "He made the operating room a warm place."

She said Dr. Liebler was "told wonderful jokes and did make everyone feel at ease. His jokes were never at anyone's expense. A lot of times they were more toward himself. He could say the right thing at the right time and crack people up."

Dr. Liebler graduated in 1954 from Mt. Lebanon High School and in 1958 from the University of Pittsburgh.

He discovered his passion for medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine, graduating in 1962. He honed his skills as a resident at Mercy Hospital until 1967, and then served as an U.S. Army major and surgeon in Korea during the Vietnam War.

It was there that he and his brother -- who also was an Army major and surgeon -- precipitated an incident rivaling the antics of fictional Army surgeons, Capts. Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce and John "Trapper" McIntyre from the movie and TV series M• A• S• H.

Both men, who were fanatical golfers, finagled an Army medical helicopter that was not in use to ferry them to Seoul so they could get in a round. Upon their approach to the landing strip, their pilot told them they would have to wait to land because a general in another helicopter had priority.

Dr. George Liebler said that wasn't true because they were in a medical helicopter, which had priority regardless of rank. The pilot said, "OK," and landed first. Golf bags in tow, the brothers waved to the general upon his landing. He was not amused and they heard about it, his wife recalled, laughing.

Dr. Liebler later completed a fellowship in cancer surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He returned to Pittsburgh to complete a second fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery at AGH in 1972 under the elder Dr. McGovern.

Dr. Liebler was a member of South Hills Country Club, the Pittsburgh Field Club, St. Clair Country Club, the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, the Duquesne Club and Pine Tree Golf Club. He was a parishioner of St. Bernard's Church for more than 60 years.

In addition to his wife and brother, he is survived by two daughters, Stacey Franklin and Cindy McVerry, both of Mt. Lebanon; two sons, George J. Liebler of Mt. Lebanon and William Casey Liebler of New York City; and seven grandchildren.

Friends will be received at Laughlin Memorial Chapel, 222 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon from noon to 4 p.m. today and from 2 to 8 p.m tomorrow. A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Tuesday in St. Bernard Church. Interment will be in Queen of Heaven Cemetery, Peters.

The family requests memorial donations to the Allegheny Heart Institute, 320 E. North Ave., Pittsburgh 15212-4756.


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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