Meet The Birmingham Man Who Saved John Mellencamp's Life

By Greg Garrison -

Rock singer John Mellencamp will perform in Birmingham on Thursday night at the BJCC Concert Hall, but that concert wouldn't be possible if a neurosurgeon who now lives in Alabama hadn't saved his life as an infant.

Dr. Robert Heimburger, now 97 and living in the Somerby at St. Vincent's One Nineteen retirement home in Hoover, performed the dangerous surgery on Mellencamp, who was born Oct. 7, 1951.

Heimburger pioneered surgeries on newborn infants with spina bifida. At the time, it was common to wait six months or longer to see if the child lived before attempting surgery, he said. "I had established a different way of doing surgery," Heimburger said in an interview with on Monday.

Birth defect was likely fatal
Mellencamp's birth defect on his spinal cord at the back of the neck would likely have been fatal, Heimburger said. Mellencamp was less than six weeks old when he had his surgery. The late Dr. John Russell performed the surgery with him, Heimburger said. "We got rid of it," he said. "I went out to tell the parents how it was going. I did have outpatient visits with him quite often. The Mellencamps were delightful people."

Mellencamp's parents waited years to tell him about his brush with death as an infant.

"Twelve years went by and I was sitting in class and some kid said, 'Hey, John, what's that big pink scar on the back of your neck?" Mellencamp said during his speech at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2008.

"And I said, 'What scar?' My parents had never told me anything had ever happened to me. I'm lucky. And my Grandma, my entire life, from a little kid until she died, would always come up to me and whisper. She called me Buddy. And she'd go, 'Buddy, you're the luckiest boy in the world.' And I am."

Dr. Robert Heimburger talks about lifesaving surgery he performed on John Mellencamp
Alabama resident Dr. Robert Heimburger perfomed a lifesaivng operation on an infant John Mellencamp.
Surgeon charged Mellencamp family a dollar

Mellencamp mentioned Heimburger in the speech. "It was a high-risk operation," he said. "It took 18 hours. A young surgeon carefully worked on my spinal cord without damaging it and damaging any of the nerves. And the doctor charged my parents, who didn't have any money, a dollar. I called this guy up, his name is Dr. Heimburger. He's still alive... I talked to him before I came here to get all the details."

In September last year, he met Heimburger in person for the first time since those doctor's visits when he was an infant.

"He remembered it because I was the first one they'd ever done," Mellencamp told Anthony Mason of CBS News, for a segment that aired Oct. 3, 2014 on CBS This Morning.

Mellencamp said he was one of three babies who underwent similar surgeries at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

"They did three operations," Mellencamp said. "One died on the table. Another girl lived I think till she was 14 and then she died. And then me ... So they basically cut my head off from here to here (he points fingers at each side of the front of his neck), laid it open, cut that thing off and then put all the nerves into my spine."
The hospital still has the records of Mellencamp's surgery, with an X-ray that shows a bulging mass at the back of his neck.

"This thing was the size of a man's fist," Mellencamp said. "I'm 62 years old; I just saw for the first time the growth on the back of my neck. It was like, 'Why didn't you guys show this to me earlier? 'Cause I would have seen how lucky I am to even be here. It was like finding out that your parents weren't your parents. It was really an epiphany moment for me. You just couldn't thank the guy enough."

Heimburger said that he was on staff at the time at Indiana University, where he was a longtime chief of neurosurgery. He was on salary and routinely did not charge for surgeries. "When I first started practice, I did not charge pastors, policemen, firemen, military," Heimburger said.

Doctor was raised in China, son of missionaries

Heimburger moved to Birmingham more than 25 years ago after his retirement because his son Douglas was a medical doctor in the clinical nutrition department at UAB. His other son, the Rev. Corbett Heimburger, is associate pastor at Altadena Valley Presbyterian Church in Birmingham.

Corbett said that when he and his brother were children, he recalls his father being gone to do surgery in the morning when he woke up, and still gone performing surgeries after he went to bed. Dr. Heimburger said he would come home when his two boys were asleep. "I would rub and pat their backs," as they slept, he said.

Faith has been an important part of his medical practice, Dr. Heimburger said. He was born and raised in China, the son of Presbyterian missionaries. His grandfather, Hunter Corbett, was a pioneer missionary to Shandong China for the American Presbyterian Mission; he and Heimburger's grandmother, Harriet, started a clinic that is now a 1,000-bed hospital. Heimburger said when he visited the United States for the first time on a furlough at age 4, he spoke only Chinese. He lived in China until he was 17.

Mellencamp and Dr. Heimburger sat together for about an hour in September 2014.

"And basically, we talked about faith, and having it, because I have very little faith in anything," Mellencamp said. "He just kept grabbing my hand and saying, 'John, you need to have faith.' I'm trying to take his advice to heart, trying to find faith in something."

Heimburger said he wanted Mellencamp to have faith. "That helps healing," he said. "The Lord knows how to heal."

Surrounded by angels?

Mellencamp told Heimburger that at the height of his fame and success in the 1980s, he was approached by a woman on a New York street who said he was surrounded by angels. "She said, 'You know how many angels you have around you?'" Mellencamp told CBS, recalling the same story. "'You are covered with protection.' Now looking back on her saying that, seeing what I've seen, maybe I believe it."

Heimburger said he's not really familiar with Mellencamp's long list of hit songs, which includes "Jack & Diane," "Hurts So Good," "Pink Houses" and "Small Town." Heimburger said that he wasn't aware that Mellencamp was a famous singer, but Mellencamp did send him albums. "I may have listened to some of them," he said. "He called us to come and see him. We've become fast friends since then."

Corbett Heimburger said he first heard from Mellencamp around 2000, when the singer found out the doctor was living in Alabama and tracked him down. "John contacted him 15 years ago with a handwritten note saying thank you," Corbett said. "John has been nothing but honorific to my father."

Mellencamp sent front row tickets and backstage passes for Heimburger and his family to attend Thursday's concert. The final stop on Mellencamp's tour, Aug. 4 in Indianapolis, will be a benefit for the Riley Children's Foundation, which supports the hospital where Mellencamp had his surgery.