Future of Heart Surgery at UH Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute Bolstered with $1 million Donation from Surgeon and Wife

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Gift establishes Alan Markowitz, MD, and Cathy Pollard Cardiac Surgical Innovation Fund

Patients who undergo heart surgery at University Hospitals (UH) Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute will benefit from the newest technologies and techniques thanks to a generous donation from one of the doctors performing those surgeries and minimally invasive catheter-based valve procedures.
Alan Markowitz, MD, Cardiac Surgical Director at UH Ahuja Medical Center, and his wife, Cathy Pollard, RN, recently made a significant investment in the future of the Division of Cardiac Surgery. They committed $1 million to establish the Alan Markowitz, MD, and Cathy Pollard Cardiac Surgical Innovation Fund.
The fund is designed to support cardiac surgeons and structural heart specialists who want to learn about new surgical techniques and technologies emerging in other parts of the country and across the world. Surgeons and interventional cardiologists will travel to observe and train best practices, then return to UH with established treatment protocols.

“The field of heart surgery is constantly changing. At UH, we’re dedicated to learning and adapting to help our surgeons excel and deliver optimal outcomes for patients,” said Dr. Markowitz who is also the Marcella “Dolly" Haugh Chair in Valvular Surgery.

Traveling to gain hands-on experience and continuing education has proven effective in the past.

Nearly 1.5 million people in the United States live with aortic stenosis or severe narrowing of the main valve through which blood travels to the brain and other organs. They can experience chest pains, shortness of breath and fainting episodes. The condition can lead to heart failure and even death. Open heart surgery had been the only option to directly address the condition, but some patients were too delicate to undergo it. Then, in 2002 in France, a heart surgeon developed a new, less invasive technique where the aortic valve is replaced not by opening the chest, but percutaneously, using a catheter through the blood vessels in an awake and talking patient. Transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) is much less invasive than open heart surgery. Recovery from TAVR is easier and more comfortable for patients, enabling them to return to their normal lives quicker.

In 2009, before clinical trials for TAVR were even approved in the U.S., Dr. Markowitz and a UH team of interventional cardiologists and cardiac anesthesiologists traveled to Portugal. There, they observed, learned, and performed transcatheter aortic valve replacement, then returned to Cleveland to jumpstart the TAVR program. In 2011, UH Cleveland Medical Center was one of just 40 institutions to participate in the first U.S. TAVR clinical trials.

By 2014 when the FDA granted commercial approval of it in the U.S., UH had already performed more than 100 TAVRs. Today, TAVR has become the standard of care for aortic stenosis patients, and UH Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute is recognized as a high-volume TAVR Center of Excellence performing greater than 350 procedures annually. UH experts have trained more than 700 heart surgeons, interventional cardiologists and supporting team members from all over the world.

“Alan is relentless in his pursuit of innovative approaches for heart surgery. The TAVR experience really demonstrates the impact Alan and Cathy’s gift could have on the UH Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute,” said Dan Simon, MD, President of Academic & External Affairs and Chief Scientific Officer at UH, and the Ernie and Patti Novak Distinguished Chair in Health Care Leadership. He also traveled to Portugal with Dr. Markowitz. “Our time overseas learning this minimally-invasive, catheter-based procedure put UH in a position to be a pioneer in new approaches to aortic valve replacement initially and now with mitral and tricuspid valve repair and replacement.”

“This gift will allow our caregivers to go where these techniques have been perfected, learn how to do them, and then bring them back to UH to be implemented with our own patients safely and effectively,” said Dr. Markowitz.

“It’s truly unprecedented for a current physician to make such a significant gift to the health system,” said Cliff Megerian, MD, CEO, University Hospitals. “This unique fund certainly sets our Division of Cardiac Surgery and the UH Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute apart from other institutions.”

The heart surgery program at UH Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute performs approximately 1,600 surgeries annually across five different hospitals within the UH system. It is the only program in Northeast Ohio to offer complex surgery at multiple hospitals across the region from Elyria to Willoughby, allowing patients to be treated close to home. By standardizing protocols and surgical teams, both simple and complicated procedures can be done in these centers with excellent results and a better experience for patients and their families. This is an example of the collaborative effort between cardiologists and cardiac surgeons within the institute to expand access to complex cardiac care while also improving overall quality of care and patient experience. 

Marc Pelletier, MD, Chief of the Division of Cardiac Surgery at UH Cleveland Medical Center and UH Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute, said this fund will allow the division to take the next step forward. 

“We have one of the nation’s fastest growing cardiac surgery programs,” he explained. “This gift gives our surgeons and interventional cardiologists the chance to learn new techniques that few others are offering and allows us to expand our reach and expertise beyond Northeast Ohio. We are so grateful to Alan and Cathy for giving us this opportunity.”

Dr. Markowitz hopes his gift inspires other physicians to explore making a similar gift to their departments. “I’d like to think of this as seed money that will give the division the ability to stay in the forefront of the field for years into the future.”

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