A big ‘heart’ for hearts celebration

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Celebrating 40 years since the Sydney Adventist Hospital’s (the San) Australian first, full cardiac surgery program started in a private hospital, a super-sized ‘human heart’ has been formed on the hospital’s front lawn by over 200 pioneering heart surgeons, doctors, nurses and local school children.

The 40th anniversary party was held to commemorate May 1979 when the San became the first free-standing private hospital in Australia to provide a wide range of complex life-saving cardiac procedures.

San cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Alan Farnsworth recalls although all major public hospitals had cardiac units, patients could end up waiting significant times for cardiac surgery in public hospitals.

“With cardiac surgery it is important to get the right service at the right time. Unfortunately there were people who were on public hospital waiting lists who never made it,” said Dr Farnsworth.

“The San establishing the first private stand-alone cardiac surgical service was a very significant development.

“It was helping meet a community need for more cardiac services. It took a lot of daring to do.”

Former San CEO Dr Bert Clifford recalls there was a presumption a private hospital could not do complex sophisticated procedures like cardiac surgery.

“Starting cardiac surgery at Sydney Adventist Hospital was a challenging innovation because no other free-standing private hospital performed complex sophisticated procedures of that kind at the time and there was a presumption they couldn’t.

“The San was the first private hospital to break that mould. We established the program and it proceeded well, with world-standard results for outcomes and recovery times for patients.

“We commenced with only one cardiac surgeon and one procedural cardiologist but demand for heart, particularly coronary, surgery was escalating rapidly at the time and more consultants were soon brought into the programme.  Emphasis continued to be placed on the highest standards,” he said.

The start of cardiac surgery at the San was an innovation that set a precedent for the development of specialisation in the private hospital sector throughout Australia.

“The implementation of other advanced services not normally provided by private hospitals, such as Radiology and Oncology, followed the Cardiac initiative,” Dr Cifford said.

After the first child patient was operated on in May 1979 demand increased with 53 complex heart operations including valve replacements and coronary artery bypasses completed by December. 

By 1985 the cardiac unit was performing up to 12 bypasses and 15-20 angiograms each week aside from treating patients with chest pain or after heart attacks.

Dr Farnsworth says the San was able to deliver a first rate service from the beginning because the hospital had the expertise, technology, facilities and the appropriate nursing staff, despite the fact cardiac surgery and recovery is complex and complicated.

“They had to get it right and they did. I felt just as comfortable at the San as I did working at other hospitals around Australia, the USA or in the UK.  The scrub sisters, theatres nurses, wards and intensive care unit staff all made it easier.

“With a cardiac service like this it’s big deal to make everything work… and the San has done it.

“There had been some scepticism amongst medical practitioners about whether it could be done but when they saw the quality of what was being done they rapidly changed their minds.

“Other facilities then copied what the San had put in place,” he said.  

Dr Clifford says the ‘human heart’ celebration was a wonderful chance to return to the San to celebrate.

“Thousands of cardiac surgeries and 40 years later it is wonderful to be here to celebrate today at this happy – and fun – event.”

The 200 children from the Wahroonga Adventist Primary School shared in the celebrations by joining in healthy heart exercises led by San Exercise physiologist Cathy Choi.

Some of the influential and early cardiac team members are still, or until recently, have been working at the San and many attended the celebration.

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