It was 1964. Specialized heart care formally began at Gundersen—a first for the La Crosse area. That year, Robert Green, MD, became Gundersen Clinic's first cardiologist. Embarking on the region's first and only heart surgery program was A. Erik Gundersen, MD (also known as Dr. Erik). Dr. Erik had good surgical training behind him, Harvard Medical School, residency in fine Boston hospitals, and time in Europe with emphasis on cardiac surgery.
Fifty years ago, specialized heart care was still in its infancy. 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.
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, Venki Paramesh and Sajjad Rizvi. Their surgical record is among the best in the nation.
Among the many ways that heart care has changed over the past 50 years is the emphasis on prevention. We now offer people an easy online risk assessment tool for heart and vascular disease. Gundersen also helps patients manage and improve their risk factors to delay or prevent the onset of heart and vascular diseases.