Caring for West Virginia’s tiniest hearts

Ruby’s pediatric heart program sees advances in 25 years

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – There are tens of thousands of children who are alive today thanks to Ruby Memorial Hospital’s successful pediatric heart program. The three physicians responsible for leading the heart program are all native West Virginians and are still working to advance heart care.Ruby-25-logo.jpg

A native of Huntington, William Neal, M.D., laid the foundation for children’s heart care at WVU. He was the chairman of the WVU School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics when Ruby was first built. Ten years later, he established the Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Appalachian Communities (CARDIAC) Project, which screens children, free of charge, for potential heart disease.

In order to provide heart care for children who live far from the hospital, Dr. Neal established outreach clinics across the state, where he and other physicians travel to visit patients close to their homes. As a founding specialist at WVU Children’s Hospital, Neal taught and mentored both Larry Rhodes, M.D., and Robert Gustafson, M.D., known by his patients and colleagues as Dr. Gus.

“Dr. Rhodes is one of the best known children’s heart doctors in the world, and Dr. Gus’s surgical expertise was a profound change; Gus made a huge difference,” Neal said.

Dr. Rhodes, current chairman of the Department of Pediatrics, was working for world-renowned Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia when he made the decision to return home to West Virginia in 2005. Rhodes, a former WVU School of Medicine graduate, is passionate about his outreach work and holds several outreach clinics a month.

An advocate of rural health, Rhodes and other physicians, like Neal, travel across the state to provide care for those who may not be able to make the trip to Morgantown for care. Earlier this year, he was nationally recognized and named 2013 Rural Health Practitioner of the Year. Rhodes said his roots are deep in this state, and the heart care at WVU is as excellent as any program in the country.

“As a pediatrician, you want to work at a place that will offer patients the best possible care. We have the ability to provide that care,” Rhodes said.

Dr. Gustafson is among the very best pediatric heart surgeons in the country and is the state’s only pediatric heart surgeon, performing more than 400 procedures a year. Like Rhodes, Gus is also a WVU School of Medicine graduate. The Keyser native was fellowship trained at Boston Children’s Hospital and returned home to West Virginia in 1984 to lead the pediatric cardiothoracic surgery team. He is internationally known for his work and has won numerous prestigious awards, including a Children’s Miracle Achievement Award.

One of his patients, three-year-old Jayden Taylor, was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) and has already had three open heart surgeries.
“Jayden’s pediatrician told me Dr. Gus is the best. He said if Jayden were born in California with that condition that he’d still send him all the way to Morgantown to see Dr. Gus,” Jessica Taylor, Jayden’s mother, said.

Jayden’s condition is one example of many, where chances for survivability are higher today than they were two decades ago. Patients born with severe congenital heart defects in 1988 are now being treated for arthritis, osteoporosis or menopause. Under Rhodes’ leadership, WVU heart specialists care for adults who have survived congenital heart defects at a comprehensive, multidisciplinary cardiology clinic. These specialists are consulted when their patients are hospitalized for other reasons.

“I have patients that if they were born 10 years earlier with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and had that operation, they would have likely died. I think that speaks volumes to how things have changed in 25 years,” Rhodes said. “We didn’t anticipate children with congenital heart disease becoming adults. When we treat patients today, we’re not trying to keep them alive for six months; we’re trying to have them grow up to be normal functional adults.”

While Neal, Rhodes and Gus agree that Ruby has always been in the forefront of medical care, they believe there are four major areas that have improved throughout the years: technology, outreach, facilities and staff. They say this successful combination is what allows Ruby to offer world-class care close to home.

“We have a great team of physicians, nurses and technicians who have worked together in expert fashion for a number of years, and we have outstanding facilities in which to deliver that care,” Neal said.

WVU Healthcare’s flagship hospital, Ruby Memorial, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. It opened on July 19, 1988, after a generous donation from Morgantown philanthropist Hazel Ruby McQuain. The anniversary celebration will continue through the fall, marking a quarter century of care for tens of thousands of patients.


For more information:
Amy Johns, Director of Public Affairs, 304-293-7087
at: 09-17-13

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