Theodore (“Ted”) Ray, who recently had heart surgery at Mission Heart, recommended not prejudging an institution just because it doesn’t have a nationally recognized name. “I’ve read that some of the best surgeons in any field often practice in inconspicuous locations,” said Ted’s wife, Christine. “We certainly found that to be true. Ted did his homework, and just 250 miles up the road from us was the exact thing we were looking for.”
At age 40, Ted was diagnosed with a heart murmur during a routine physical. At the time, he was told he may not need surgery and that he could keep an eye on things with periodic echocardiograms. For nearly 25 more years, Ted remained asymptomatic. Then last July, he started having mild angina after working out. When he went to his cardiologist for another workup, he was told he would definitely need surgery.
“That’s when I began planning,” said Ted. “I started a process of learning about my condition and my options, where I could go for treatment and who should do my surgery.”
Searching Far and Wide
A Charleston, South Carolina, resident, Ted didn’t just look at local options, he also considered prominent hospitals across the country, including Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic and Duke. However, there were significant drawbacks to each hospital he investigated. Some hospitals didn’t have a dedicated heart wing, and those that did have heart centers either didn’t have a focus on aortic valve surgeries (which was to be a major component of Ted’s procedure) or didn’t perform a large volume of them.
After ruling out a number of hospitals, Ted reconsidered one he was told about early in his search. “I had talked to two friends who were nurse anesthetists who had worked at Mission Heart for years and who had worked with Dr. Mark Groh,” said Ted. “They had the highest regard for Dr. Groh, and told me about their experiences working at the heart center. They recommended I speak with him, but at the time I wanted to research other places.”
When the other options weren’t looking favorable, Ted took another look at Mission Heart. “I had been looking at publications with comparative hospital statistics, so I picked those up again,” he said. “I started seeing that Mission was amazingly consistent from year to year, and that they had been among the top 50 heart hospitals longer than Cleveland Clinic. And all their numbers—the outcomes, safety, infection rates and success stats—they were all just stellar.”
Ted said another thing that stood out to him was that Dr. Groh had performed well over 3,000 aorta operations during his time at Mission Heart.
Encouraged by the possibility that he had found a top heart surgeon and a world class cardiac center not far from home, Ted and Christine drove to Asheville to talk with Dr. Groh. That’s when they started feeling a sense of certainty about the road ahead.
“We were immediately impressed with Dr. Groh,” said Ted. “On the way there, we had some delays and were running late, but he knew we were coming from out of town and ended up staying at the office an hour and half longer than he intended just to accommodate us.”
“During our meeting with him, he was personable, warm and answered our questions fully,” continued Ted. “And the most impressive thing about him was his confidence. He wasn’t egotistical in the least, but he was very at ease. That put me at ease, too. When we walked out of that meeting, I looked at Christine and said ‘He’s my guy.’”
Christine felt good about the decision, too. Dr. Groh had already completed four aorta surgeries that week, when the last surgeon they spoke to hadn’t performed that many in a month. She also liked that Mission Heart was close enough to home that she and Ted would be near their support system.
Mark Groh, MD, president of Asheville Heart and chief of cardiac surgery with Mission Hospital, said the Rays’ approach to researching healthcare options is becoming more common—although not widespread enough. “There are a lot of people who put more time into researching where they will eat dinner than where they will have their surgery,” said Dr. Groh.
“In cardiac surgery, experience really matters,” he said. “And not just the surgeon’s experience, but the whole team’s—that includes ICU nurses, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, physical therapists and basically everyone involved.”
The Rays felt confident about Mission Heart as a whole. “From the nursing staff all the way down to the person who mops the floors, you’re essentially putting your life in the hands of the entire staff,” said Ted. “For a heart patient to have a good, safe outcome, everyone—not just the surgeon—needs to be doing their job well.”
When it comes to volume of valve surgeries, which is a procedure Ted needed, Mission Heart is in the top 5 percent of US heart programs, performing more than 500 valve operations annually. Mission Heart also performs more than 1,000 open-heart surgeries a year, which is around 20 procedures a week.
The Right Choice
After their visit in November 2016, Ray’s procedure, which involved a triple bypass, replacement of his bicuspid aorta valve and replacement of a section of his ascending aorta, was scheduled on January 10, 2017—the day Ted refers to as “the beginning of the rest of my life.”
The Rays’ experience at Mission Heart, as well as Ted’s recovery, exceeded the couple’s expectations. From the valet parking when they arrived the morning of the surgery to presurgical banter with the anesthesiologists, Ted said every step of the way he experienced professionals who were warm, highly competent and personalized in their care.
“In my four days in the hospital, I didn’t run across a single person who wasn’t confidence-inspiring,” Ted said. “Everyone seemed to have a sense of purpose and commitment. Whenever I had a question, I was given thorough explanations. The whole thing was such a comfort.”
Ted was even pleased with his stitching. “A surgeon can be a very effective surgeon, but still be very hard on your tissue,” he said. “Dr. Groh was like an artist. He made it as trauma free as possible.”
Several months out from his procedure, Ted said he’s had a smooth, uneventful recovery. “I feel better than anyone who’s had major heart surgery has the right to feel,” he said. “Now, having been through this whole experience, I know we couldn’t have made a better choice. I was seeking excellence, and I know I encountered excellence at Mission.”
For more information about Mission Heart, call (828) 274-6000 or visit missionhealth.org/heart.
Mark Groh, MD, is president of Asheville Heart and chief of cardiac surgery with Mission Heart. (828) 258-1121
By Jennifer Sellers