100 Years of Heart Care

When most Jacksonville residents think of heart care, there’s one hospital that immediately comes to mind: St. Vincent’s. Indeed, St. Vincent’s is proud of its well-earned reputation as the city’s heart hospital. 

That reputation isn't just recognized by patients, either. Associates throughout St. Vincent’s strive to move into cardiology after getting their bearings in other areas. Much of that has just as much to do with the fast-paced nature of heart care as it does with St. Vincent’s sterling cardiology department.

“Cardiology is a field that was moving forward rapidly even when I first started out,” Dr. Robert Luke, an electrophysiologist and Chief of Cardiology at St. Vincent’s Southside, says. “There are very few aspects of medicine where we can fix and cure things. But in cardiology, there’s a lot we can do to help people live with their conditions, and in some cases, even fix their conditions.” 

St. Vincent’s has consistently kept up with the tremendous growth in the cardiology field. In fact, frequently throughout its 100-year history, St. Vincent’s blazed a trail to revolutionize methods of heart care in Jacksonville.

The First Open-Heart Surgery in Town

Dr. Theodore Batchelder was a pioneer of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery. After studying medicine at the University of Kansas and serving his residency at the University of Chicago, Dr. Batchelder brought his talents to Jacksonville.

As a member of the medical staff, Dr. Batchelder ushered in a new era of advanced heart surgery in northeast Florida. Most significantly, Dr. Batchelder performed the first open-heart surgery in Jacksonville—a feat made more impressive when you consider the lengths to which Dr. Batchelder went to achieve said procedure.

At the time, Duval Medical Center (now known as UF Health Jacksonville) was better equipped and had the experienced operating room staff to accommodate an open-heart surgery. Thus, Dr. Batchelder performed the procedure there—although it wasn’t as simple as showing up.

“Dr. Batchelder physically loaded his equipment, including a heart and lung machine, into his vehicle and drove to the hospital where the surgery would be performed,” Christine Veal, previous Cardiology Director at St. Vincent’s, relates. “Needless to say, times were a bit different.”

A Team of Achievers

Dr. Theodore Batchelder teamed with Dr. Harold Snyder and Dr. Walter Smithwick to form a three-man group that would bring many fellow heart surgeons to town. As Dr. Smithwick put it, St. Vincent’s was essential in advancing heart surgery in Jacksonville.

“I can tell you the number of people that came through St. Vincent’s doing heart surgery: it’s about 10 or 12. I really believe St. Vincent’s has been the portal for Jacksonville as far as bringing the best heart surgeons to town.”

In the 1970s, St. Vincent’s introduced its first ever cardiologist on medical staff: Dr. Angel Delatorre, an interventional cardiologist and pioneer in his own right. Soon after, Dr. Joel Ferree and Dr. Willie Bell joined St. Vincent’s as well.

Another St. Vincent’s cardiologist still on-staff today got his start in 1985 and began his tenure in a memorable fashion. Dr. George Pilcher was the first in town to perform a percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA)—a minimally invasive procedure to open blocked coronary arteries, typically using a balloon catheter—with no surgical backup.

This procedure usually requires a full surgical staff to complete. But Dr. Pilcher’s technique is so precise, so careful, he successfully performed the procedure with no one in the operating room save for himself and the patient.

Working with the best of the best is part of what makes St. Vincent’s Cardiology special. It starts with their training; it’s not uncommon to see schools like Harvard and Johns Hopkins on the resumes of the many cardiologists who call St. Vincent’s home.

Keeping Up with the Cutting Edge

A willingness to constantly grow and innovate pervades St. Vincent’s Cardiology, and that progressive atmosphere helps define our work.

Consider some of St. Vincent’s most recent advancements in heart care. In September 2012, St. Vincent’s was the first in northeast Florida to offer transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), a minimally invasive procedure designed for patients for whom open-heart surgery is too risky. In little more than three years since the procedure’s launch at St. Vincent’s, approximately 200 patients have been successfully treated by TAVR—patients who, prior to TAVR, had simply run out of options.

St. Vincent’s Heart Failure Program, designed to educate heart disease patients on how to take better care of their heart so they don’t end up back in the hospital, has received Gold Plus Awards from the American Heart Association and was the second program of its type in Florida to be Joint Commission certified.

St. Vincent’s is also home to the Atrial Fibrillation Institute, the first of its kind in Jacksonville and only the second in Florida. Dr. Saumil Oza, Chief of Cardiology at St. Vincent’s Riverside, believes the AFib Institute has made tremendous strides in ensuring patients in the community suffering from this unique heart arrhythmia have better options for treatment.

“When I got to Jacksonville, atrial fibrillation ablation was still in its infancy. People were just treating AFib with medication and leaving patients in a state where they really didn’t feel good,” Dr. Oza says. “Many of these patients went into heart failure or needed permanent solutions like pacemakers. They just weren’t great ways to live.”

When the Institute was first founded, a typical ablation procedure would take four to five hours and the patient would be exposed to radiation for about an hour. Now, physicians like Dr. Oza can perform eight ablations in just one day. Meanwhile, rapidly advancing technology means patients go from an hour of radiation exposure to just a couple minutes.

“Now we have procedures like the Lariat and Convergent— procedures that frankly even five years ago no one else was doing,” Dr. Oza comments on the continuing innovation happening at St. Vincent’s. “We’re able to give patients with advanced chronic AFib a much better chance to live normal lives where, in the past, we had to relegate them to management by way of medication.”

The Future of Heart Care

The heart is the thumping engine of your body. Every second of every day it beats, furiously pumping blood through miles’ worth of blood vessels. If it falters even for a moment, it spells catastrophe for the rest of your body.

As we learn more about the diseases and dysfunctions that damage your heart, the cardiology group at St. Vincent’s adapts. In fact, that evolution is what drew Dr. Luke to Jacksonville’s heart hospital.

“Cardiology is a very energetic field. In terms of heart care, I could see the potential of a lot of things coming down the pike when I started. And I think most of that potential has been realized,” Dr. Luke says. “At St. Vincent’s especially, everyone is dedicated to doing the best for people with the best technology.”

Dr. Oza envisions a future in which St. Vincent’s continues to adapt and innovate as new technologies become available, while striving to provide treatments that are less invasive for patients.

“I think we’ll continue to stay on the cutting edge of procedures and technologies,” Dr. Oza says. “Procedurally, we’re trying to move to simpler, more minimally invasive procedures that are less disruptive to the body.”

But no matter how futuristic technologies become, it’s the oldest technology that will take on an even greater role: knowledge. Educating patients about how to better take care of their heart will be among the most powerful tools as we move into the future.

“We recently brought the Ornish Reversal Program to St. Vincent’s, which is cutting edge but it’s also based on the oldest technology in the world: diet, exercise, and stress management,” Dr. Oza says as he notes how cardiology seems to have come full-circle. “We’re trying to empower our patients to take control of their own health while providing them with the tools to do so.

Wherever the future of heart care goes, one thing remains certain: St. Vincent’s will continue to go above and beyond to keep its patients’ hearts beating strong.

St. Vincent's offers several convenient office locations throughout Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia. Contact the St. Vincent's Cardiology office closest to you today to schedule an appointment.