A Heart-to-heart with the Cardiovascular Surgeons of Singing River Health System

DR. WILLIAMS, as a Harvard Medical School Grad with residencies at John Hopkins Hospital and Duke University Medical Center, how would you compare heart care at Singing River Health System to renowned medical centers across the U.S.?

“One thing that has truly impressed me since my arrival is the expert level of care our heart patients receive here at Singing River Health System, similar to the other places I’ve had the good fortune to call home. Our surgeons and cardiologists do an excellent job of communicating in order to provide each patient with optimal, individualized care. Furthermore, having two partners here on the Gulf Coast with the training and experience that my partners,
Dr. Johnson and Dr. Lee, have is almost unheard of in any community based practice. Our ICU and OR staffs are exceptional, and the ancillary services Singing River Health System is able to provide our patients allow for excellent recoveries after the most complicated operations. I feel incredibly fortunate to work in a health system that delivers the quality of heart care that we do here at Singing River Health System.”

What is the difference between a cardiovascular surgeon and a cardiothoracic surgeon?

“These two terms are essentially synonymous. The term cardiothoracic encompasses surgical care for anything in the thoracic (chest) cavity. Cardiovascular is a term that simply refers to the surgery performed on the heart and the great vessels (which exist in the chest cavity). Currently, surgeons in our country receive training in the care of patients with all manner of chest cavity diseases, from lung, to esophagus, to chest wall, to heart and great vessel diseases. A CT surgeon is trained to care for any of all these problems.”

What types of exclusive new technologies are only available at Singing River Health System?

“Currently Singing River Health System is the only center on the Gulf Coast (from Mobile to New Orleans) and one of the only two centers in Mississippi to utilize the new sutureless valve technology for aortic valve replacement (Percival, Liva Nova). This technology allows us to offer patients a valve operation that is often quicker, less stressful on the heart and has better hemodynamic (blood pressure) results than other forms of valve surgeries.”

What role does diet play in the need for heart surgery? What foods should we avoid?

“Heart disease occurs from a combination of many factors, some of which we understand well and others in which we are still investigating. Diet is one factor that plays a big role in the development of coronary artery disease and aneurysm disease because the wrong types of foods can lead to atherosclerosis (plaques in the arteries that lead to blockages and aneurysms). Foods high in saturated fats (i.e. fried foods) and foods with high carbohydrate loads that lead to elevated blood sugar levels can all impact our arteries over time. The best option to maintain good cardiovascular health is to eat a healthy, balanced diet that includes plenty of vegetables and avoid fried and fatty foods as well as foods that are high in sugar. One does not have to completely avoid these tasty delicacies, but eating them in moderation is an important way to prevent heart disease. Daily exercise and avoiding smoking are the two other major lifestyle modifications that can have beneficial long term effects on the cardiovascular system.”

DR. LEE, as a graduate of Ole Miss Medical School and after a long distinguished practice in Jackson, what do you love best about the South and more importantly, South Mississippians?

“The family atmosphere. It’s great to walk into a restaurant or grocery store and see patients you know.”

Which of your experiences in education or practice most prepared you to be a Carovascular Surgeon?

“I began working in surgery at an early age as a scrub tech. That is when I became interested in being a surgeon. I became fascinated with the heart in Medical School and decided then that I wanted to be a Cardiovascular Surgeon.”

What are you most excited about when it comes to advancements in heart care?

“We are developing new less invasive procedures to take care of patients with heart disease.”

What is the most common but preventable heart issue you see most often in South Mississippi?

“Smoking and the addiction to nicotine is the most common but preventable risk factor of heart disease in South Mississippi. Smoking causes coronary artery disease that leads to patients having to have heart surgery and also causes lung cancer which can lead to lung surgery. As a Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgeon, we treat patients for both.”

DR. JOHNSON, Having been a faculty member of Harvard Medical School, what led you to establish a practice with Singing River Health System?

“After over 26 years of operating and teaching surgery at both Harvard Medical School and as Chairman of Surgery at St. Louis University, I was ready to practice full-time what I had only been able to do part-time in the academic setting. Coming to Singing River Health System offered me an opportunity to relinquish administrative, research and education duties and to, instead, actually focus on applying the skills that I had been studying and teaching for nearly three decades; moving to direct patient care.”

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing heart surgeons today?

“One of the biggest challenges facing heart surgeons today is that the patients who need our care are often more ill by the time that they come to operation. The cardiologists with medicine and stents are able to take care of patients so well that those actually requiring more than they can offer, moving to operations, are often “sicker” or require more difficult operations than they did many years ago.”

What do you say to comfort patients who are about to undergo heart surgery today?

“In comforting patients about to undergo a heart operation, it is first key to express understanding of their very rational fear about having such a major operation. Second, is to help them understand what treatment options they have and what the rationale benefit of undergoing an operation would be. These two steps require me to watch and listen to my patient and their family in order to provide more or, rarely, less information to educate them about their condition and possible recommended operative treatment. Finally, in trying to comfort a patient and their family, I move from a world of medical, scientific and statistical facts (or opinions) to faith. My own faith both allows and requires me to speak of that which passes my own understanding and to connect with the faithful life of my patient and their family. Finding peace in making difficult decisions in life, to me, requires not only the cold hard facts but also a belief in God’s grace.”

If you could give our community one tip or habit to form that can improve their heart health, what would it be?

“Various health care gurus have opined as to the high percentage of chronic diseases that can be impacted by our lifestyle choices. In my own long practice of medicine and surgery, I have long advocated that when we are faced with challenges, rather than blaming others or ‘the system,’ the better approach is to reflect and ask “what could I do differently?” Heart disease is the result of many factors, one of which is genetic, and while one cannot change their genetic makeup, many of the other factors are modifiable; cigarette smoking, cholesterol profile, high blood pressure and diabetic control. Each of these factors could be improved by a more active, physically active, lifestyle. Regular exercise might decrease the time one has to smoke, or decrease the appetite for something that makes one so rapidly winded. Regular exercise clearly has a positive impact on high blood pressure, diabetic control and lipid profiles. Weight reduction associated with moderate exercise improves these factors as well. So my single tip is to find time in the day, regularly, at least five days a week to do something active (get your heart rate up, sweat a little bit) to improve your conditioning. This is not selfish, this is a gift you give your family and your friends. I often tell patients that if exercise came in a tablet form that I could prescribe, “Exercise, take one twice a day,” every patient would eagerly comply, but when it demands that we actually get off our posteriors to exert ourselves for 20 to 30 minutes… that’s not so easily done. My advice is, like the old Nike commercial, “just do it.”