Fred W. Schoonmaker, M.D., FSCAI, was so well known that when Saudi Arabia’s royal family needed a cardiologist, they sent a jet for him. When he got there, he was waiting to perform a procedure on a prince when, in what his own family calls “typical Fred fashion,” he noticed his shoe was untied, bent over, and split his trousers. “Fred immediately ordered his staff to surround him to cover the hole in his pants,” his family remembers. “The prince was so impressed with the number of ‘body guards’ that Fred had in his command that he was allowed to perform a procedure on the King himself.”
That kind of practical response to a problem was a Schoonmaker hallmark and a legacy of his western boyhood. Born in Wyoming in 1929, Dr. Schoonmaker decided to go to high school back east. He rode his Indian Chief motorcycle to Pennsylvania each fall, once encountering a tornado along the way. He went on to Duke University, where he was a track star and All-American halfback. As his family notes, Duke has not had a winning football team since his departure.
Dr. Schoonmaker was heading to medical school when Uncle Sam intervened. Instead of med school, he found himself in the U.S. Air Force flying fighter jets in the Korean War. After completing his military service, Dr. Schoonmaker earned his medical degree at the University of Colorado in 1961. He did his internship and residency at Duke, followed by fellowships at Duke and the National Institutes of Health. He then worked at Duke and at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Durham, NC. In 1967, he headed back west and started the cardiology laboratory at St. Luke’s Hospital in Denver. His family notes that the group not only still exists but is now the largest professional group of cardiologists in the state.
Of course, Dr. Schoonmaker is best known as the developer of a new kind of catheter. “I didn’t know him personally, but I certainly knew him by reputation,” said SCAI Past President Joseph D. Babb, M.D., FSCAI. “What was originally known as the Schoonmaker–King catheter has become what we now call the multipurpose catheter.” Still used today, the multipurpose catheter eliminated the need for catheter exchange and thus reduced the chance of introducing a thrombus into the heart. Using a single catheter also made procedures faster and easier, explained Spencer B. King, III, M.D., FSCAI, a past president of the Society and co-author of the 1972 Circulation article announcing the invention.
“Dr. Schoonmaker was a dynamic, incredibly hard-working, can-do guy,” recalls Dr. King, who joined Dr. Schoonmaker’s Denver practice in 1970. “You could tell he had been a fighter pilot. He had the ‘Right Stuff’ personality.”
Dr. Schoonmaker’s innovations didn’t just take place in the catheterization lab. He was also a driving force behind the creation of Denver’s “Life Flight” service. “It was one of the first private air-vac services in America,” said Dr. King, noting that Dr. Schoonmaker persuaded a donor to buy the helicopter, St. Luke’s Hospital to maintain it, and the Denver police department to fly it. “He was constantly looking for interesting things like that,” added Dr. King.
Sharing his knowledge and skills was another passion for Dr. Schoonmaker. He taught at Duke and the University of Colorado Medical School, winning several awards for his teaching. He founded the Rocky Mountain Heart Research Institute, where he served as president and chair of the Board of Trustees. He was a clinical investigator for the American Heart Association, and he was a charter member of the Board of Trustees of what was then called the Society of Cardiac Angiography.
Dr. Schoonmaker wasn’t all work and no play, however. He loved the wide-open spaces of the West and spent many happy hours renovating the 100-year-old log houses on his Mill Creek Ranch in Laramie, WY. “The Homestead house that he completed was one of his most cherished places and was where he went to rejuvenate his spirit and mind,” remembers his family. “Fred loved spending time on the ranch with his family around him.”
Dr. Schoonmaker was married to the former Barbara Morss from 1954 to 1980, a marriage that produced four children. In 1984, he married Jan Goertzen, who has two children of her own. Together they have 14 grandchildren. Dr. Schoonmaker died at home in Bozeman, MT.
Note: Much of this article is based on the program distributed at the memorial service held for Dr. Schoonmaker.