Wickstrom saved lives, and made them better
After saving lives during a distinguished career as a surgeon, Duluth's Per Wickstrom devoted much of his retirement to making lives better.
Wickstrom, who lost an 11-year battle with prostate cancer on Dec. 29 at age 75, is being remembered as a great surgeon, a giving man and talented artist who touched many lives in the Duluth community.
"He was very generous, very supportive of me, very open and loving in all ways," said Lee Stuart, executive director of CHUM, the Duluth nonprofit that benefited from the extensive volunteer efforts of Wickstrom and his wife, Elaine.
Per Wickstrom, a cardiothoracic surgeon, retired from Essentia Health in 2007 after being diagnosed with cancer, and in his retirement he had more time for his work with CHUM.
Wickstrom served on the CHUM board from 2007 to 2014 and was one of its most generous investors, Stuart said.
Wickstrom not only volunteered at CHUM, but he donated all of the money he made from selling his paintings to CHUM.
"It was great for him because it honored his creativity, and for the person who bought it (because) they got something truly beautiful," Stuart said.
Wickstrom grew up in Omaha, Neb., and went to Yale University for college and medical school.
He moved to Minneapolis for an internship and five-year surgical residency at Hennepin County Medical Center in 1969. It was there that he met his wife, who was an emergency room nurse.
"I met her on the first day of my internship in the ER, and I think she saw that I needed guidance," Wickstrom recalled in an article published by Essentia Health several years ago. "Interns don't know a whole lot about what's going on, but nurses do. They're assigned a doctor and I was her assignment."
They married in 1971, and in 1983 they moved to Duluth, where Wickstrom helped start the heart surgery program at what was then St. Mary's Hospital, according to his obituary. During his time at St. Mary's and the Duluth Clinic, now part of Essentia, he held various positions and served several terms as chief of cardiothoracic surgery.
That's when Barbara Johnson met him.
In 1996, Johnson had been in and out of doctors' offices and hospitals for a year, trying to find out what was wrong with her. Then one day in February, Johnson was on her daily lunch walk in downtown Duluth when she felt out of breath.
"The following day I had an angiogram and that was on Feb. 12, and on the 15th I had double bypass surgery," Johnson said.
Wickstrom performed the surgery, and Johnson said he was "just a humble ... caring person."
"He made you feel so good that you were in his hands and he was going to take good care of you," she said.
Johnson said she felt much better after surgery, and she owed it all to Wickstrom. Two years ago, she got a chance to thank him when they both were at the Essentia fitness center.
"I never liked to bother him about his past because he was retired, but I just had to go up to him and thank him for getting me a new lease on life," Johnson said. And she was glad she did.
"It was 22 years ago that I had that surgery and I'm in better health now than I was then," she said. "I was very lucky and very happy to tell him what a great thing it was to give me that extra time."
Mary Schmitz, development director at CHUM, worked with Wickstrom at CHUM and she said he was there nearly every day. In the summer of 2004 and 2005, she recalled, he and his wife really stepped up.
"We had a four-family shelter at the time, but we were so overloaded at one point that we had 10 families with children staying with us," Schmitz said. "So Per and his wife and a couple other members of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church got together and decided that they had space at Gloria Dei where they could keep some of the families."
Schmitz said Wickstrom and his wife would bring snacks every day and even cook dinner for the families on occasion. They stayed in touch with two of the families after they left the shelter.
"He was fabulous. I loved working with him," she said. "I talked to him at least two to three times a week for quite a few years. He became a good friend who also provided personal support to me. Having him gone is kind of a big hole in my heart."
CHUM's Stuart said she knew about Wickstrom's illness for many years, and was grateful that she was able to visit him briefly before his death.
"He and his wife, Elaine, are a real pair. I value the financial support, but I value the human support even more," Stuart said. "I know that through his faith and through his family that his ... good work will continue."
Visitation for Wickstrom will be held today from 5-7 p.m. at Dougherty Funeral Home in Duluth, and Saturday from 10 a.m. until the 11 a.m. memorial service at First United Methodist Church in Duluth.