Dr. Kuzmitz and the dino heart

Author: Jessica Trobaugh Temple '92

For Dr. Andy Kuzmitz, ND class of 1972, it’s what we don’t know that makes life interesting. That’s why the family practice doctor in Ashland, Oregon, spends as much time delving into the environmental history of the earth, researching the possibility of time travel or dabbling in the makeup of fungi as he does diagnosing and treating patients.

“Basically, I’ve been somebody who likes to synthesize, to take things from different fields and put them together and see what we get,” says Kuzmitz.

And then there’s that fascination with dinosaurs. In 1998 Kuzmitz received a call from his friend, paleontologist Mike Hammer, who had turned up a dinosaur fossil in South Dakota with a curious clump in its rib cage and needed some help identifying the object.

One look was all Kuzmitz needed. The two men loaded the skeletal torso into the back of a pickup truck and headed to the hospital. There Kuzmitz ran the mass through a computer tomography device, or CT scanner. Cross-sectional photographs of the mass then appeared as a digitized, 3-dimensional image on the computer screen.

There it was. No doubt about it — a 66-million-year-old fossilized dinosaur heart. When the first image popped up on the screen, Kuzmitz says, “I literally jumped off the ground.”

The brick-red fossilization, encased in a stone concretion, belonged to a 660-pound, 13-foot-long herbivore, or plant eater — the “Thescelosaurus,” or “magnificent lizard.”

But was the dinosaur a lizard?

The CT scans showed a four-chambered muscular organ with only one aorta, not two, like the rest of the reptilian world. This was the heart of a warm-blooded animal. “This challenges some of our most fundamental theories about how and when dinosaurs evolved,” says Dale Russell, a senior research curator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences where the fossil, heart intact, is now on display.

Kuzmitz explains that this find adds credence to the theory that most dinosaurs were warm-blooded creatures and not “reptiles that had to warm themselves on a sun-baked rock in the morning in order to have sustained movement.”

After this discovery, the pair’s findings, along with subsequent test results, were published in the April 21, 2000, issue of Science magazine. Scientists at North Carolina State University periodically post their continuing dino-heart test results on their Web site (see Links). . “Paleontologists are just used to looking at bones,” says Kuzmitz, who hopes this discovery will prompt such scientists to take a closer look at what they typically discard.

But that’s just Kuzmitz’s natural way of thinking: Take the stuff that’s tossed aside and turn it over, examine it from another angle, see it in a new light.

As a biology major at Notre Dame, Kuzmitz says he also immersed himself in a load of philosophy and world religion courses, Bill Storey’s class on evolution, and other courses he audited or took pass/fail such as harmony writing and film.

“Picture truth in the middle,” Kuzmitz says about his passion for exploration. “Around it are all these various windows: art, music, religion, philosophy. And you can look through each window and see truth from a different side. Some people spend all their life looking through one window. I wanted to get up and look around and get a glance through all the windows.”

During his final year of medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles, Kuzmitz chose to pursue the answer to a question that had stayed with him since reading The Brothers Karamazov in high school. “I began a quest to find out why there is suffering in the world,” he says.

His quest led him to Bangladesh where the leading cause of death in all age groups is starvation.

He tells of women who would come to the concrete-block medical shelter seeking sterilization surgeries in the middle of the night. “They could not bear to see any more of their children die,” says Kuzmitz. The tubal ligations were performed with only local anesthesia. A cloth would be placed over the woman’s face and a nurse would hold her hand. Because the facility had no electricity, one doctor performed the surgery while another held a flashlight and brushed the insects away. After surgery the women would walk back to their villages as if nothing had happened.

“It took such bravery,” says Kuzmitz, explaining that such an act is against Hindu religion and culture. “They put themselves at severe risk. If anyone were to find out, [the women] would be shunned for life.”

Since then, the medical doctor has received a variety of responses to his inquiry, and is writing a book on the subject. The husband and father of three also is creating a CD-ROM on the history of the cosmos and hopes to take up teaching.

“Too many people get stuck in their window,” Kuzmitz says. “They’ll say, ’I’ve got the truth,’ and they do. . . . But God’s a lot bigger than people want to believe. We can’t understand it all.”

Jessica Temple is a reporter for the South Bend Tribune.