PINEHURST — In September 1990, Dewey McClendon, a Montgomery County resident with a long history of heart trouble, became the first person to have open-heart surgery at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital.
In August 2017, Moore Regional reached another milestone when Rose Lebo, a Robbins resident with an equally troubling heart history, became the hospital’s 8,000th open-heart patient.
Twenty-seven years of improvements in technology, medication, training and technique separate the two procedures, but the surgeons who performed them — Dr. John F. Krahnert Jr. and Dr. Peter I. Ellman — agree that the high level of care, commitment and teamwork for which the FirstHealth open-heart program has become known has never changed.
Nor do they expect it to.
“We’ve stayed true to our core values,” said Krahnert. “For me, what we have done from the first patient to the 8,000th is truly patient-centered care. We treat our patients like we would treat our own family. We’ve built the program on that approach.”
“I feel blessed to work with the team we have here,” Ellman said. “It is a team effort that includes our office staff, operating room surgical technologists and circulating nurses, perfusionists, nurse anesthetists, anesthesiologists, the nursing staff, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, physician assistants, discharge planners and social workers. I feel very lucky to be a part of a program that really delivers world-class cardiovascular care for the people who live in the Sandhills of North Carolina.”
A disabled restaurant worker, the 53-year-old Lebo was admitted to Moore Regional’s Reid Heart Center on Aug. 2 after suffering a heart attack, her third in a long history of heart disease. She had open-heart surgery — a three-artery bypass — a week later, was moved out of intensive care into an intermediate-care nursing unit the next day and went home five days after the operation.
Despite a condition complicated by diabetes and blocked arteries, she is doing well.
“She’s young to have such bad heart disease, but her prognosis is very good,” Ellman said. “We got her through a very precarious, life-threatening situation, and I’m glad to see her get back to her life as she knew it before her heart attack.”
Lebo describes her unexpected entry into Moore Regional Hospital history as “kind of exciting,” but the experience as “kind of scary.”
“The nurses and staff were great,” she says. “There was not one time that if I needed someone that someone wasn’t there. Dr. Ellman has been very, very nice. God was with the doctors and nurses. They were wonderful, and I thank God every day that I’m alive.”
Moore Regional introduced its advanced cardiac care program 30 years ago this year with a cardiac catheterization performed by invasive cardiologist Dr. David Cowherd. Three years later, Krahnert started the open-heart program with months of preparation that involved assembling a specially trained staff, outfitting state-of-the-art operating rooms, and engaging in a series of “dry runs” that preceded the first surgery.
“It was truly a dress rehearsal we did over and over again,” Krahnert said. “As soon as we were ready and we found Mr. McClendon, we operated on him and were off and running.”
The program grew quickly with the team performing its 100th surgery just shy of the program’s eight-month anniversary and its 1,000th in January 1995.
Krahnert, who estimates that he performed about 3,500 of the 8,000 open-heart surgeries, put aside his surgical scrubs earlier this year to concentrate on his administrative duties as FirstHealth’s chief medical officer.
“I’ve handed those reins over to my partners, gladly and with confidence,” he said. “Do I miss it? No question about that, but I face new and different challenges in my new role that give me more things to do to help patients.”
Ellman says he is proud to be part of the legacy that Krahnert successfully started 27 years ago.
“Without his leadership, not to mention his exceptional skill as a surgeon, we would not be here today,” Ellman said.
In addition to Ellman, the surgeons on the FirstHealth open-heart team include Dr. Art Edgerton and Dr. Cliff Kitchens, who joined the program just a few weeks ago.
In its 30 years of advanced cardiac care, FirstHealth has continuously expanded the program by adding physicians specializing in such procedures as minimally invasive transcatheter aortic valve replacement and by consolidating services into the multi-million-dollar Reid Heart Center on the Moore Regional campus in 2011.
Features of the 57-patient room Reid Heart facility include six advanced-technology operating rooms and five cardiac catheterization rooms.