Real work begins for heart unit

First Posted: 1/15/2009

LUMBERTON -- When Herman Madden Jr. heard that Southeastern Regional Medical Center had been approved to build a heart-surgery center, he says that he felt like “a kid on Christmas.”
Madden, who has had five heart attacks since May 2000, said the decision might end his numerous trips to Duke University Medical Center for treatment. The constant treks to Durham have meant that Madden's wife was always asking for time off from her job and that his 13-year-old son missed school or had to stay with relatives.
“Having to travel to Durham can be hard on a family and I sometimes wondered if they suffered more than I did with my heart problems,” Madden said. “When I had my last heart attack, I made my wife stay home because her employer was getting sick of her taking time off. That's when my doctor told me that I may need a heart transplant. That is tough news to hear all alone, but it is a choice I had to make because I was so far away.”
For Madden and hundreds of other Robeson heart patients, the disruptions that those trips -- which require five or more hours -- cause to family life will become a thing of the past. More than 550 county residents traveled outside the county last year for heart surgery or angioplasty, with an estimated 80 percent of SRMC heart patients choosing to have surgery at Duke.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Madden, a former Robeson County sheriff's deputy. “It is great news to heart patients and their families.”
Now that the N.C. Division of Facility Services has approved a Certificate of Need, SRMC and Duke University Health System are expected to begin construction on the $9.9 million unit in about nine months. The center is expected to open in late 2005.
“This really is tremendous news,” said Duncan Yaggy, chief planning officer for the Duke Health System. “We tried to stress to the state in our application what a great need there is in Robeson County for a heart center. I think the message finally hit home.”
The heart center will offer open-heart surgery and interventional cardiac catheterization services. The hospital will add a third floor over its emergency services department to house the heart center. It will connect to SRMC's new patient bed tower. The center will include two surgical suites, six intensive-care beds and a 15-bed telemetry unit. The open-heart surgery services will be administered by Duke. Southeastern Regional will provide support services.
“Local citizens have shown overwhelming support for this program,” said James R. Rust, chairman of the SRMC board of trustees. “There is no doubt that it is needed. Now we can move ahead and make it happen.”
Hard part
Although it has taken more than five years to gain approval for the heart center, officials at SRMC and Duke say the “real work” of establishing the heart center has just begun.
SRMC officials began submitting applications to the state in 1997, seeking permission to establish open-heart surgery services that would be managed by Duke University Medical Center. In 1999 and 2001, the state rejected the hospitals' efforts to provide open-heart services in Lumberton. Neither of the previous petitions passed the Acute Care Committee.
“Since the announcement, the reaction from the community has been very positive,” said Luckey Welsh, SRMC president and CEO. “People have been watching this story over the last five years and have seen our disappointments. They know what this means to our area and are celebrating this accomplishment right along with us.”
Welsh said the hospitals will spend the next few months doing everything from approving the final design of the center to training staff and recruiting personnel.
“There will have to be plenty of meetings between the Duke people and our staff,” Welsh said. “There is a lot to accomplish between now and when the doors of that center open. In some ways, the work is just beginning. We've been approved, now we have to make it a reality.”
Yaggy said Duke will provide heart surgeons, an anesthesiologist and staff to operate a heart-lung bypass machine. About 35 local jobs will be created.
“The next step is making people understand what it means to run a heart center,” Yaggy said. “We will be working closely with our counterparts in Lumberton. So far our focus has been getting this approved. But the hard work is in getting this center up and running.”
In addition to helping heart patients, the heart-surgery center will also make SRMC more attractive to prospective doctors, according to Welsh.
“One of the things it will do is attract new specialists to the area,” he said. “In the end, it will make us a better medical center.”
Welsh said the announcement has already boosted SRMC's reputation. The Lumberton medical center will become one of 22 hospitals out of 150 in North Carolina that have a heart unit.
“The decision shows that the state of North Carolina, as well as Duke, has the confidence in this medical center to provide high-quality care to the community,” Welsh said. “It just speaks volumes to me about the type of job they believe our medical and hospital staff are capable of.”

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