Person of the Week: Dr. Craig Smith

Dr. Craig Smith — one of the nation's leading heart surgeons — and his wife, Trish, were headed to their vacation home in New York's Adirondack Mountains to celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary when Smith got a very unexpected call.

"My wife answered the phone and spoke to my secretary, and it was obvious within 20 seconds or so that there was something big going on," Smith said.

Trish suggested they find the nearest exit and head back to the city. Unbeknownst to them at the time, former President Bill Clinton needed heart surgery right away, and Smith was being asked to perform it.

"My reaction was, well, that'll be interesting," Smith said.

"Interesting" may be an understatement. When he arrived at New York City's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where the surgery was to take place, a mob of reporters from around the world was camped outside.

Smith, 55, performs about 350 heart operations a year, but operating on a president is not just another day's work.

"I was certainly aware that whatever decision I made would be potentially second guessed for a hundred years by people in this business, and I'm sure that was weighing in my mind," he said.

Quadruple heart bypass may be commonplace to Smith, but the whole world was watching Clinton's operation intently.

"The magnitude of the reaction was a little overwhelming," said Smith.

Smith said the former president, as a patient, was an "easygoing, congenial person who makes everybody feel comfortable."

As for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea: "I've handled lots more difficult families. I can assure you, they've really been very pleasant to work with," he said.

Before President Ronald Reagan underwent surgery in 1981 after a failed assassination attempt, he said to his doctors, "I hope you're all Republicans."

Smith didn't consider his political affiliation to be a stumbling block in treating Clinton.

"I am not particularly political frankly," he said, "but I don't see it as very relevant, and I'm sure he wouldn't either."

Early Interest in Medicine

As a boy, Smith was fascinated after reading The Century of the Surgeon by Jurgen Thorwald.

The memory stayed with him. After graduating Williams College in Massachusetts, he spent a year repairing telephone lines in Vermont and later decided to enroll in medical school.

He was deeply attracted, he said, by the responsibility and the power that a surgeon has.

"You have to have enough belief in yourself to know that you can take someone through a life-threatening operation and bring them back and deal with whatever might get in the way along the way," he said.

Smith has quite a record. In 2002, he led the first successful bypass surgery in which robotic hands were used to operate.

"It's a lot of fun to be involved in new technology at that level, when you really don't know quite how it works, you're still figuring it out, and making it up as you go along," he said. "That's the best time to be involved in new things."

Smith has helped a lot of people lead a better life. But for the nonmedical world, he will now be remembered specifically for having operated on the 42nd president. That's fine by Smith — he loves what his job, and it gives his life meaning.

"I think for me when I was picking my career, I really had a need to be doing something that truly mattered," he said. "It's hard to find much that seems to truly matter as much as this."

Peter Jennings filed this report for World News Tonight.