It was in 1964 that Dr. A. Erik Gundersen returned to his hometown of La Crosse, Wis., to join the clinic which his grandfather started 45 years before. Affectionately known as Dr. Erik, he had good surgical training behind him, Harvard Medical School, residency in fine Boston hospitals, and time in Europe with emphasis on cardiac surgery. His return marked the beginning of cardiac surgery at Gundersen Health System. Over the years, this specialty would evolve into a well-tuned major cardiac treatment center, which would include all aspects of heart disease intervention.
The field of heart surgery was in its infancy during the 60s. Surgeons were limited in their ability to operate on the heart and still keep the patient alive. The development of the heart-lung machine changed all of that; the surgeon could stop the heart, open it up and work on it while keeping the patient alive. The field of heart surgery evolved rapidly after that creation. Animal labs and open-heart surgery programs began opening all across the country and Gundersen was right there along with them. Dr. Erik created an animal lab and developed a team of skilled practitioners to train on dogs and calves to perfect their techniques prior to operating on humans. The first heart surgery performed at Gundersen was on Aug. 3, 1965, with the successful repair of a congenital heart defect.
Early in the history of heart surgery, the surgeries consisted primarily of congenital defects and valve replacements. It would not be long after that a new surgery was being perfected around the world. Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting (CABG) would become the foundation of every heart surgery program. The patient’s own vein was taken from the leg and could be used as a bypass conduit around blocked coronary arteries.
The program continued to grow and reached a peak in the mid 90’s at just over 600 open-heart surgeries per year. It has since leveled out in the 400 per year range. CABG surgery is still a mainstay. A new option for a certain group of patients requiring bypass surgery is the use of a stabilizing device which allows surgeons to perform the bypass grafting without the use of the heart-lung machine. This has shown to be a safe and effective alternative to conventional bypass surgery.
Valve surgery has also changed because all attempts are made to repair the valve rather than replace it with an artificial valve. If the valve does need to be replaced, a valve from a pig (a homograft) is preferable to the mechanical devices available.
It is now sometimes possible to repair the mitral valve through a four-inch incision in the right side of the chest. This is known as Minimally Invasive Mitral Valve Surgery and is a viable option when the patient requires isolated mitral valve surgery.
As technologies continue to advance, so do techniques which contribute to the safety and successful outcomes for the patient. Since that first surgery in 1965 until the present, heart surgery teams at Gundersen have always strived to provide the very best in all aspects of cardiac surgical care. Leading us into the second decade of the 21st century are Drs. Prem Rabindranauth
and Venki Paramesh
. Their surgical record is among the best in the nation.