A Physician's Pick

Faced with a life-altering heart surgery, Andrew Ross, M.D., knew that in order to take care of his patients, he had to take care of himself first.

The 44-year-old gastroenterologist, used to the role of being a practitioner, became Andy, the patient, following the news that an existing heart condition had worsened.

It began with a common test. Dr. Ross had known he had a heart murmur and mitral valve prolapse, a structural issue in the left side of the heart that impacts blood flow. The condition is fairly common, and in most people it isn’t life-threatening and doesn’t require treatment and changes in lifestyle.

While on a ski trip with friends from medical school in 2018, Dr. Ross realized it had been a while since he had been to the doctor. He felt fine, managing a busy career, an active lifestyle and a bustling family schedule with his wife, Andrea, and daughters, Jordan and Marley.

Dr. Ross’ primary physician ordered an echocardiogram, a common test that uses sound waves to produce images of the heart.

“The week before I had my test, I joked with the cardiologist, ‘I’m going to pass this, right?’ I mean, in my mind, there’s no way I couldn’t,” Dr. Ross says.

Instead, the head of the cardiology department where Dr. Ross worked gave him the news: He needed surgery. Soon.

Dr. Ross went through a common range of emotions — disbelief and fear at first, before begrudging acceptance.

“Being a doctor doesn’t make you immune from being a patient,” Dr. Ross says. “As a physician who does procedures, I’m used to being the one in control. As a patient, I had to abdicate all of that control and recognize that there are people who know a lot more about what I need than I do.”

The Difficult Decision

Although he worked in a medical center known for providing excellent multidisciplinary care, as a practicing physician, he knew that, in this particular case, he needed to look elsewhere.

“I’ve worked in the same hospital for 12 years, and I perform complex procedures on patients every day. It’s my policy to not perform higher-risk procedures on friends or family,” Dr. Ross says. “I knew this was a pretty big surgery, and I didn’t want a friend or co-worker to have to bear the additional stress that comes with operating on someone you know quite well.”

In addition to a busy clinical practice, Dr. Ross leads a nationally recognized gastroenterology division at Virginia Mason Medical Center, a not-for-profit medical center in Seattle founded in 1920 by a group of like-minded physicians. The group included Dr. John Blackford, a Mayo Clinic alumnus who trained under Dr. Henry S. Plummer, the namesake of Mayo Clinic’s Plummer Building. Dr. Blackford’s interests included cardiovascular care, and he and Dr. Plummer performed Mayo Clinic’s first electrocardiogram in 1914.

Dr. Ross’ affinity for analyzing data to solve problems was instrumental when choosing where to go. Mitral valve repair is an uncommon specialty, with only a few places in the United States performing the surgery. One of those places is Mayo Clinic.

“One of the first things I saw in my research were the research publications and patient resources from Mayo Clinic that showed me this surgery was performed all the time, which is crucial with something this serious,” he says.

Dr. Ross’ next consideration was the patient experience beyond the surgery itself. Dr. Ross knew that the technical aspects of the procedure would happen while he was asleep. He wanted to ensure that his care team shared the values he incorporates in his work with his patients.

“Mitral valve repair is an uncommon operation, but a procedure that we perform regularly at Mayo Clinic,” says Joseph A. Dearani, M.D., a cardiac surgeon and the Sheikh Zayed Professor of Cardiovascular Diseases Honoring George M. Gura, M.D. “His valve problem was straightforward with a high success rate for valve repair — not replacement — and we could use robotic technology, which is less invasive and has a faster recovery time. Our team has extensive experience with robotic procedures, and we were confident that it would go well.”

For Dr. Ross, Dr. Dearani’s thoughtful conversation was a powerful factor in his ultimate decision to have the surgery at Mayo Clinic because it went further than just the technical details of the operation. Dr. Dearani was direct in discussing the process and next steps, as well as what recovery would look like. From a patient perspective, Dr. Ross felt reassured.

“I felt like I had the game plan I needed, and a surgeon who told me, ‘I’ve seen this many, many times,’” Dr. Ross says. “I remember thinking that this is the exact same way I’d treat a patient.”

Personable and Professional

When it came time for surgery, Dr. Ross and Andrea flew from Seattle to Rochester, Minnesota, and they both noticed the small touches at Mayo Clinic, including the focus on not just Dr. Ross’ comfort but also on Andrea’s.

“I wasn’t anxious until the day of the surgery, but everything was explained,” Andrea says. “It was a very calming and relaxing environment. The doctors and nurses, the people at the pharmacy, the reception desk — they were all so personable, which speaks to the culture. It was important to me that the first person I talked to after surgery was Dr. Dearani, who reported that everything had gone to plan.”

For Dr. Dearani and his team, this comprehensive, face-to-face care is second nature.

“Interdisciplinary design of practice is natural at Mayo Clinic. It’s a way of life,” he says. “I’ve heard countless times from patients and their families, ‘I’ve learned more about what’s going on in the past few hours than I have in days anywhere else,’ and that comes easy here.”

Dr. Ross and Andrea returned home, and the active recovery process started with walks around their hilly neighborhood.

“My care team told me, ‘You’re not going home to sit around,’ and I listened,” Dr. Ross says with a smile.

Six weeks later, Dr. Ross went back to work. It was the longest he had been away from medicine, and he attributes his patient experience as cause for reflection on why he became a physician.

“Being a doctor is a great job,” says Dr. Ross, who wanted to share his story to help other patients. “You get to make a huge difference in people’s lives.”

Now able to speak from roles as both a patient and a physician, Dr. Ross says the best thing to do is to learn as much as possible when facing a serious or complex condition.

“I knew that the expertise, the values and the culture at Mayo were the right fit for me,” he says.

There’s one more reason Dr. Ross has for sharing his story.

“I’m a huge believer that people deserve credit for their hard work,” Dr. Ross says. “As someone who takes care of patients every day, I know great care when I see it.”■ 

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