August 19, 2008

At The Heart Of Cardiac Care For 25 Years

By Scott, Jeannette

[email protected] They prepared the operating room. They scrubbed. They passed instruments in sequence over a draped "patient" of rolled towels.

"Then I said, 'I think we're ready,' " said Lawrence Bonchek, founder of Cardiothoracic Surgeons of Lancaster - the cardiac surgery team of Lancaster General Hospital's Heart Center.

A quarter-century later, the practice and the heart program are still beating strong.

In the early 1980s, Bonchek was an experienced Midwestern heart surgeon with an entrepreneurial spirit. He looked for a fledgling heart program where he could have input.

Lancaster General Hospital was developing a heart center, and sought skilled surgeons to practice there.

It was a perfect match.

In those days, Lancaster County patients were sent elsewhere for heart surgery - usually Philadelphia.

"Prior to 1983, when a patient required heart surgery, no one offered that here in Lancaster city," said Tim Zeller, vice president of nursing and operations at Lancaster General.

"At that time, the cardiologist and the Lancaster General Hospital administration and other key leaders really felt this was a need for the community," he said.

Bonchek was particular about his staff. He brought his star resident Mark Burlingame, nurse clinician Norma Ferdinand, perfusionist Craig Gassman, and head nurse Bonnie Wackman when he left the Medical College of Wisconsin for Lancaster General. All had experience with heart operations. All but Wackman - who agreed to come for one year - have continued their careers with the Heart Center.

Wackman trained more nurses and technicians for the operating room. The fledgling team, however, was missing just one thing: a patient.

Gary Ghee volunteered without hesitation.

"It was close and convenient to the family," said Ghee. "I felt very much at peace."

The then 42-year-old Alcoa employee, of Leola, had a heart attack during a family trip to Williamsburg, Va. After a short hospital stay, Alcoa flew him to Lancaster where it was determined he needed open heart surgery, Ghee said.

Bonchek, Burlingame and their team performed a triple bypass on Ghee Sept. 7, 1983.

They scheduled a surgery every other day after that. It was soon apparent this wasn't enough to meet the demand.

"The cardiologist said, 'That's it. We're not doing this every other day. There are too many people who need heart surgery,' " said Bonchek, who retired in 1998.

The number of surgeries continues to climb. "On average, it's three a day, but we may do as many as six surgeries in a day," Zeller said.

This is despite the fact that hospital heart programs have been on decline, said Burlingame.

For a time, he said, there was a trend of hospitals adding heart care programs. But many were not sustained long.

"... Many hospitals have trouble sustaining programs without enough patients, staff and physicians," Zeller said.

Cardiothoracic Surgeons of Lancaster now has at least nine employees, according to its Web site, including the addition of a third surgeon, Richard Thompson, in July.

The Heart Center, at Lancaster General Hospital, Duke Street, employs 540 people in areas including a surgery team, nursing areas, labs, cardiac testing, and cardiac rehabilitation.

Another factor in success, Zeller said, is that "We've also made the commitment to stay on the cutting edge with technology."

"We do high-end surgeries that are done at academic facilities in Philadelphia, but patients can receive it here where their family is close by," Zeller explained.

The majority of patients are local, however, "a small amount of people do seek us out from surrounding counties, and usually they come to us based on reputation," he said.

Most facilities, including the surgery practice, three operating rooms, and nursing care, are at Lancaster General Hospital on Duke Street. Cardiac testing is also available at Lancaster General- Kissel Hill outpatient facility in Lititz. The cardiac rehab is at the Health Campus on Harrisburg Pike.

The Heart Center has put a heavy emphasis on public education about cardiovascular disease and behavior modification for those at risk.

There are no plans to expand the heart center, according to Zeller.

Cardiothoracic Surgeons of Lancaster is making the move toward minimally invasive procedures. Generally, they are done with small incisions called ports made in the chest. Surgeons pass instruments through the ports, viewing their work on video monitors. They typically result in shorter hospital stays and quicker recovery periods.

Thompson was chosen not just to fill the need for an additional surgeon, but also for his experience with this type of surgery.

Since that inaugural open-heart operation in 1983, Ghee has watched his daughter and son grow up, coached Little League baseball, enjoyed 25 more years of marriage, and welcomed two grandchildren into the world.

He left Alcoa years ago, and is now a sales and marketing manager at Schwanger Bros. & Co. Inc.

"You do the work and time passes and suddenly you realize so many years have passed," said Burlingame.

Cardiothoracic Surgeons of Lancaster has performed more than 16,000 surgeries to date.

But Burlingame measures the program's success in a plain cardboard box in his top desk drawer.

It holds cards and notes celebrating second chances at life, gratitude for the skill and compassion of the surgeons and their team.

One reads:

"Just a note to express my gratitude to you for giving me the opportunity to spend the holiday season with my family. Hopefully, there will be many more."

(Copyright 2008 Lancaster Newspapers. All rights reserved.)

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