Doctor Took Mentor’s Advice to Heart: TEXAS HEART INSTITUTE
By Todd Ackerman, Houston Chronicle
Jul. 27–When he was a sophomore in high school, Jim Willerson’s parents decided it would be a treat for their son to meet Dr. Denton Cooley, then a rising star coming to San Antonio to lecture on heart surgery.
Despite the aspiring doctor’s protestations, they deposited him in a station wagon with four physicians who picked Cooley up at the airport, then proceeded to one’s home. Willerson had never met any of them.
“I thought it was the silliest thing I’d ever heard of,” Willerson recalls. “Why would this famous doctor want to meet me?”
But to Willerson’s surprise, Cooley took a strong interest in him. He put his arm around the 15-year-old boy, asked all sorts of questions about his future plans and recommended that he attend his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. A lifelong friendship began.
More than 50 years later, Willerson is about to succeed Cooley atop the Texas Heart Institute, the legendary home of some of the world’s most cutting-edge surgery. On Friday, Willerson ends an eight-year tenure as president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and begins one as the heart institute’s second president, following Cooley’s 46-year tenure.
It’s a notable appointment, because Willerson is not a surgeon but a cardiologist — a probable nod to the fact that the greatest innovation in heart care is now in prevention and minimally invasive interventions rather than the big surgery on which the heart institute made its name.
Willerson is also the latest in a constellation of Texas Medical Center stars: a top researcher whose basic-science and clinical discoveries have made him known as one of the world’s most pre-eminent heart doctors; a strategist who brought the factions together at UT Health Science Center and set what was once a struggling young facility on a course toward excellence; and a workaholic whose plate also includes journal editorships and a thriving practice featuring some of Houston’s biggest names.
That Willerson isn’t better known outside the medical world is perhaps a result of his quiet, mild-mannered nature.
“He’s an extremely well-organized, hard worker who can do more in a short time than anyone I know,” says Dr. Bud Frazier, a Texas Heart Institute surgeon and former classmate of Willerson’s. “People who bring that sort of intensity to their work tend to get frustrated with people, but the thing about Dr. Willerson is that he’s always a gentleman.”
Drawn to medicine Willerson grew up in San Antonio, attending military schools, playing sports, hunting and fishing. At the Texas Military Institute, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s alma mater, Willerson was battalion commander, senior class president, editor of the newspaper and swim team captain.
But there was never any doubt that he’d become a doctor. The son of physicians — his father was a general practitioner and his mother an anesthesiologist — the young Willerson often accompanied them on house calls, rounds and to the operating room. He took note of the pleasure his parents got out of their work, the gratitude of their patients.
Willerson went to UT-Austin on a swimming scholarship. He then went to Baylor College of Medicine, where he reunited with Cooley and trained under famed surgeon Michael DeBakey.
Despite such mentors, Willerson says he never felt called to go into surgery. At the time, he thought that after his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, he would return to assist in his father’s practice.
“I wasn’t sure what I would do beyond that,” Willerson says. “But I knew I didn’t have a facility with my hands like Cooley and DeBakey did. I figured my mind was my strength — that I’d pursue diagnostics, that I’d try to develop new ways of doing things.”
Do-it-all mentality At Massachusetts General, Willerson fell in love with cardiology. He went on to write more than 850 scientific articles and edit or co-edit 24 textbooks. He was one of the early discoverers of the process by which arterial plaque ruptures and causes heart attacks.
From 1993 to 2004, as the longest-serving editor of Circulation, Willerson converted the monthly journal of the American Heart Association into a weekly — a change that Robin Fox, a former editor of The Lancet, describes as like transforming “a lumbering truck into an agile motor car.” Journal citations by other scientists shot up.
Willerson acknowledges he’s an unusual man and says he likes working 18-hour days.
“But I also don’t view what I do as work,” says Willerson, whose 2,000 patients include former Mayor Bob Lanier, former Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan and state Sen. Rodney Ellis. “I really enjoy seeing patients, teaching and doing research, and I have a fundamental feeling that we’re on this earth to help others and to do something that justifies being here.”
But the do-it-all mentality sometimes spread Willerson too thin at UT Health Science Center. In 2003, concerned about problems at the center, UT administrators dispatched one of their own — then-executive vice chancellor Michael McKinney — to run day-to-day operations so Willerson could concentrate more on the big picture.
Small-town aspirations Willerson’s tenure at UT Health Science Center nonetheless was a big success. He overcame Tropical Storm Allison’s costly destruction of facilities and research animals; he spearheaded a successful campaign to recruit top scientists that culminated in the construction of the Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases; and he raised the institution’s assets from $381 million to more than $1 billion.
It took pressure from the regents for Willerson to step down at UT-Houston. But he acknowledges now that the time had come for him to focus fully on the heart institute, where he has worked since 1989 and served as president-elect since 2004. Settling into his office last week, he said he is intent on making the institute the nation’s best cardiology center.
But he acknowledges the route to that distinction is going to involve very limited procedures, such as his most recent project — injecting heart patients with stem cells, the building blocks of human tissue. Already having shown such cells can rejuvenate hearts, the institute has five trials investigating possible cardiac benefits.
Between stem-cell treatment and artificial hearts now under investigation at the institute, Willerson foresees a day in the not-too-distant future when increased human longevity is going to require additional space for people to live.
In the meantime, the heart institute figures to be the last major stop for Willerson, 68, though he says he’d like one day to care for patients in a small Texas town, such as his birthplace of Lampasas.
“I plan to be at the heart institute as long as I can talk, walk and make sense,” says Willerson, a Texas history buff whose walls are adorned with old flags, maps and memorabilia. “But I would hope that even when I’m markedly slowed in my ability, I still might be of some help to those without any other recourse in a small town.”
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