Often, new medical developments have roots in innovative scientific studies and developments spanning decades or more. Such is the case with the University of Florida’s curated collection of hearts with structural defects. Among the largest in the nation, the collection is used to educate students and train physicians at the UF Health Congenital Heart Center. Ranked No. 29 nationally by U.S. News & World for its pediatric cardiology and heart surgery services, the Congenital Heart Center is a magnet throughout Florida, the Southeast and nationally for young cardiac patients and their families, as well as adult survivors of congenital heart disease who require life-long care.
The heart collection’s roots reach back to the late 1960s when noted pediatric cardiologist Lodewyk Van Mierop, M.D., was recruited to Gainesville to study congenital heart disease and the embryology of congenital heart malformations. Van Mierop had gained a reputation for his unprecedented use of autopsied pediatric human heart specimens as educational tools – a practice he continued with pediatric pathologist Bill Donnelly, M.D., at the University of Florida. Van Mierop developed a method of creating plasticized models of about 50 hearts so that students would be able to examine the heart closely.
“[The collection] is very educational for medical students, resident physicians, nurses, fellows and faculty,” says Jay Fricker, M.D., professor and former chief of pediatric cardiology at the UF College of Medicine, and former medical director for the UF Health Congenital Heart Center.
“For example, the cardiology faculty select specimens with different defects so the students and the residents can actually hold the heart in their hand and examine the defects and the chambers and the valves,” Fricker says. ”It provides a major educational understanding of the morphology of congenital heart disease, and can result in more informed patient care.”
Fricker says the hearts have also proven valuable practice tools for surgeons. He cites the arterial switch procedure in transposition of the great arteries as an example. The first arterial switch operations were performed at the University of Florida, and surgeons practiced on the autopsied hearts before performing the actual procedure. UF Health was also the first in the state to perform a pediatric heart transplant.
The Congenital Heart Center, which opened a 24-bed, state-of-the-art pediatric cardiac intensive care unit, has continued to blaze trails since its inception in January 2006, with the arrival of nationally recognized leader in congenital heart disease, Mark Bleiweis, M.D., who is the center’s director and UF Health’s chief of pediatric cardiovascular surgery. The center ranks among the top 50 pediatric cardiology and heart surgery centers in the country and is the only facility in North Florida to offer complete and comprehensive congenital cardiac care for unborn babies, newborns, children and adolescents and adults.
“The unique part of the Congenital Heart Center is that all of our physicians, nurses, and support staff who are involved in caring for the patient are all at the center, including our surgeons, cardiologists and pediatric cardiac anesthesiologists,” Fricker says. “We meet weekly and we discuss our patients together, making for a true, multidisciplinary team approach to care.”