President's Column: The Value and Impact of Collaboration

Robert S.D. Higgins, MD, MSHA

STS News, Winter 2020 — On November 29, 1944, Dr. Alfred Blalock and his associates, guided by the watchful eye of his steadfast laboratory assistant Vivien Thomas, performed the first “blue baby operation” on a tiny child named Eileen Saxon.

This frail 18-month-old with Tetralogy of Fallot benefited from an extraordinary team effort that included legends in surgery named William Longmire, Denton Cooley, and Helen Taussig, who collaborated and successfully created a shunt that increased blood flow to the lungs and initiated the dawn of a new era in cardiovascular care.

A courageous partnership between Vivien Thomas, a black carpenter’s apprentice with a genius for surgery, and Alfred Blalock, a visionary white surgeon, made it possible to perform the first “blue baby operation” in 1944.

I recently had the good fortune to meet Hugh M. Edenburn, a 74-year-old patient of Drs. Blalock and Taussig who underwent the lifesaving Blalock-Taussig shunt procedure in 1945. Edenburn continues to thrive and demonstrate the extraordinary benefits from the surgical care that was born out of a remarkable collaboration between professionals dedicated to saving lives of those with heart disease.

Today, 75 years later, we have the opportunity to bask in the reflected glow of these extraordinary pioneers and watch millions of patients who have benefited from these groundbreaking efforts.

But it might not have happened if it were not for the courageous partnership between Thomas, a black carpenter’s apprentice with a genius for surgery, and Dr. Blalock, a visionary white surgeon who chaired the Department of Surgery at Johns Hopkins. Blalock and Thomas played a key role in the innovation and pioneering efforts in these early years.

Hugh M. Edenburn (left) underwent the lifesaving Blalock-Taussig shunt procedure in 1945 and continues to thrive.

Thomas remained in the teaching laboratories to train residents, although he never attended medical school. After 30 years, he was honored with the title of Instructor Emeritus in Surgery at The Johns Hopkins Medical School. But it was Thomas’s collaborative efforts with Dr. Blalock that unlocked the future of cardiovascular surgery. We recognize these efforts with pride and respect for what can be accomplished in even the most challenging of times.

“Rough seas make strong sailors...”

It has been a privilege to serve STS members despite the many challenges we have faced—the transition to the IQVIA data warehouse, congenital heart surgery public reporting concerns, and 8% Medicare reimbursement cuts proposed for 2021. Yet, we are encouraged by the resolve of our surgeon leaders and senior staff and emboldened by the conviction to our mission and core values—Quality, Innovation, Professionalism, Inclusiveness, and Teamwork.

Over the past few months, STS has sponsored and directed several critically successful programs, including the Multidisciplinary Cardiovascular and Thoracic Critical Care Conference (September), a state-of-the-art forum to advance knowledge and bring expertise in critical care to participants; Advances in Quality & Outcomes: A Data Managers Meeting (October), enhanced training for our data managers; and the STS/EACTS Latin America Cardiovascular Surgery Conference (November) in Cancun, Mexico. This extraordinary collaborative effort with our valued colleagues from Europe addressed the latest developments and best practices in adult and congenital heart diseases. More than 300 participants benefited from an exciting program featuring a world-class international faculty. These programs have been directed towards improving patient care and preparing our cardiothoracic surgical workforce for the future.

STS President Robert S.D. Higgins, MD, MSHA (right), and EACTS Secretary General Domenico Pagano, MD, FRCS(C-Th), FESC, discussed future collaboration between the two associations at the STS/EACTS Latin America Cardiovascular Surgery Conference in Cancun.

We have now entered into a 5-year strategic partnership with EACTS focused on expanding our collaborative educational offerings and leveraging the power of our respective clinical data registries for quality improvement and research (see page 9).

The Future of STS Is Our Next Generation

Critical to the success of our Society and our specialty will be a forward-looking approach to patient care and innovation as we work together to tackle the next big challenges. We must collaborate in the face of evolving patient care paradigms like transcatheter aortic and mitral valve procedures (TAVR and TMVR) and in fighting major reimbursement cuts proposed by CMS. We must continually modernize our STS National Database, embrace new educational and training approaches, and invest in the next generation of cardiothoracic surgery leaders.

On January 24, we will sponsor a new leadership course designed to help develop the next generation of leaders. Leadership Beyond the Operating Room for Early Career Surgeons will focus on core skills—managing people, managing finances, and managing yourself—with a business school-like curriculum for cardiothoracic surgeons in their first 8 years of practice.

We are hopeful that our collaborative investments in developing the next generation of surgeon leaders will pay extraordinary dividends, now and in the near future. It is clear that our horizons are brighter because collaborating on innovative and potentially lifesaving clinical interventions will amplify the impact of these efforts and create a lasting legacy.

It is the dawn of a New Era in Cardiothoracic Surgery at STS. We welcome your support, as the Future Is Now!