Fond Memories and a Bright Future

Fond Memories and a Bright Future

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The Ultimate Compliment

In my native Philippines, family and home are everything, so when I say that MedStar Washington Hospital Center is my home, and its people my family, I can pay no higher compliment.

I write from the Asian Hospital and Medical Center, which I founded two decades ago and where I continue to serve as board member and chief of cardiovascular surgery. But from 1967 to 2011 I was at the Hospital Center, starting as surgical resident and rising to chief of cardiac surgery before retiring as senior attending cardiovascular surgeon.

Humble Beginnings 

As the the Hospital Center prepares to inaugurate its leading-edge Heart and Vascular Hospital, I feel enormous pride in and fondness for an institution that is already in the top ranks of heart centers, one that nurtured me and helped me to have the successful career that I enjoy even until now. Without the opportunities afforded me by the Hospital Center, I would probably not have become a cardiac surgeon, not have received the knowledge and experience that have allowed me to excel in my field and to bring top-level care to my less-advantaged countrymen in the Philippines.

The timing was exquisite both for me and the institution, for when I began my residency towards the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, cardiac surgery was still in its relative infancy. Indeed, the Hospital Center had performed nary an open-heart surgery, and would not until 1972, the last year of my residency, when I assisted Dr Karel Absolon, a founder of the heart program, with an emergency procedure that saved the ailing patient’s life.

Later that year, the Hospital Center, with help from then-Medical Director, Dr Harold Hawfield, sent me to the Cleveland Clinic for two years of advanced training. At the time, the Cleveland Clinic was already a leading heart center and pioneer in the then-novel technique of coronary bypass surgery. Once back in Washington, I was able to use my training to help the program evolve into the world-class operation that it is today.

For me, the turning point came on July 11, 1974: my first heart operation (a coronary bypass) since returning from Cleveland. The team drilled repeatedly to ensure that we would start on the right track. Everything went like clockwork. It was very exciting. You could feel the electricity. I shall never forget the scene in the operating room—the anesthesiologists, nurses, perfusionists, surgical assistants—everybody doing everything to ensure a successful outcome.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the improved heart program helped to put the Hospital Center on the map. Neither is it an exaggeration to say that it helped to catalyze other positive changes, such as to the cardiology program and our ability to recruit top-notch personnel.

I loved every minute of my time at the Hospital Center. I learned that the most important asset is good people who like their job and know what they are doing.  I learned also not to be bedazzled by the high-profile patients from Washington’s political establishment. At first, I was a little star-struck. Eventually, I learned to treat them just like everybody else.

I’m frequently back in Washington and always carve out plenty of time for the Hospital Center, consulting with colleagues, many of whom I hired and trained, and absorbing new techniques and technologies that I can employ here in the Philippines. Everybody is always welcoming and helpful.

Looking Toward the Future

I look forward to attend the inaugural event and to the program’s continued progress. At the same time, I look forward to the continued growth and development of my own hospital, which seeks to provide the same quality of care that Americans enjoy at prices Filipinos can afford.

It’s partly because of my hospital that I’m optimistic about the future of cardiovascular patient care. In 1989, when I got the idea to start the hospital, there had not been a new hospital in the Philippines in 25 or 30 years. The ensuing competition had a positive influence on the entire industry. We’ve had our difficulties—the 1998 Asian economic crisis in particular—but have persevered and prospered.

Another reason I’m optimistic is that we know so much more about cardiovascular disease than we did when I was starting. We have drugs for high cholesterol and blood pressure and programs to encourage healthy diets, physical activity and tobacco cessation. When prevention fails, we have techniques such as coronary angioplasty, endovascular surgery and percutaneous aortic valve replacement that make it possible to operate without opening the chest cavity. We also have other minimally invasive procedures such as off pump coronary artery bypass and aortic and mitral valve surgery. Even in end-stage heart disease, we can save patients’ lives with various heart assist devices and heart transplant.

I’ll always treasure the relationships that I forged at the Hospital Center. The heart team celebrated together, suffered together. We were, and remain, family.

Have any questions?

We are here to help! If you have any questions about MedStar Washington Hospital Center or the Nancy and Harold Zirkin Heart & Vascular Hospital call MedStar Washington Hospital Center at 202-877-3627.

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