It started, as most great endeavors do, with vision.

It was a vision that would eventually grow into what is now one of the most respected and comprehensive cardiovascular surgery programs in the mid-Mississippi Valley.

The year was 1982
Southeast Missouri Hospital, under the leadership of Administrator O.D. Niswonger, had recently observed its 50th anniversary of service to the region and the “Hospital on the Hill” was preparing to embark on a journey of growth that would bring several new services to the region, not the least of which was “open heart” surgery.

Responding to the Region’s Need
By 1980 the southeast region of Missouri was the only part of the state which did not offer a heartsurgery program. At that time, this area was also home to the largest percentage of elderly Missourians and had the dubious distinction of having the highest death rate in the state due to cardiovascular-related diseases.

This combination of facts led to a study by the Area Five Health Systems Agency which revealed that a large number of cardiovascular cases were being referred out of Southeast Missouri at a rate that could easily justify establishment of a local heart surgery program.

Referral out of the area was not only an inconvenience for patients and families, but a matter of life and death as well. Dr. Talbert commented at the time that a certain number of deaths could be directly attributed to the lack of heart surgery here. “We just can’t stabilize some patients and get them to the city in time,” he explained more than 20 years ago.

Armed with this information, Southeast began building the foundation of its comprehensive cardiovascular surgery program. The Hospital’s new Robert D. Harrison Annex would provide ample room for spacious and modern surgical suites, new intensive care and cardiac care units, and other components for a complete Cardiovascular Services Department.

A group of local cardiologists -- including C.R. Talbert, Jr., M.D., W. Kirk Bowman, Jr., M.D., Charles DeFelice, M.D., and Allen Spitler, M.D. -- were part of the initial discussions as the Hospital prepared to bring heart surgery to the region. Several anesthesiologists were also key participants in the early planning including Riley R. Adams, M.D., R. Blaine Russell, D.O., and Huey D. Tewis, D.O.

From the physicians’ perspective, many of the necessary elements for a comprehensive cardiovascular services program were falling into place including a cardiac catheterization lab, intensive care, anesthesia and nursing care. In addition, the Southeast Auxiliary was involved by raising funds to expand the heart program.

In October of 1983, Dr. Talbert and Dr. DeFelice were joined by Medical Staff President J. Stephen Whitten, M.D., Board of Trustees President Stanley Grimm, and members of the Hospital administration in support of Southeast’s heart surgery Certificate of Need application before the Missouri Medical Facilities Review Committee.

According to Mr. Niswonger, “We were prepared to answer any questions they might have had; but apparently our certificate of need application more than substantiated the region’s need for the service because the Committee’s vote was swift and unanimous.”

Building Southeast’s Heart Team
With the support of the Board of Trustees, the Medical Staff, and the community and the approval of the Hospital’s certificate of need, the next step was to identify a team of heart surgeons to lead the cardiovascular surgery program. Southeast’s Cardiac Surgery Planning Committee embarked on an exhaustive nationwide search and recruited highly talented and skilled heart surgeons to the staff.

And on October 1, 1984, a 33-year-old mother of two from Portageville underwent the first coronary artery bypass surgery at Southeast Missouri Hospital.

Cathy HavenIn the years since, Cathy Haven has been joined by nearly 6,500 other heart surgery patients from throughout Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois (as well as parts of eight other states) whose lives have been enhanced -- and in many cases saved -- by the surgical team of the Regional Heart Center.

Looking Back
Two decades after helping lay the groundwork for the Regional Heart Center, former Southeast Administrator O.D. Niswonger smiles with pride when asked about the cardiovascular surgery program. “In all my years with Southeast, there wasn’t any other project that was more gratifying to me than our heart surgery program,” he remarked.

The program’s success, he said, required the perfect combination of staff dedication, physician involvement, medical technology, financial resources and a commitment on the part of the Hospital’s lay leadership and administration. “It took teamwork, a ‘can do’ attitude by everyone involved and a leap of faith to make it happen,” he reflected. “And it all came together...without missing a beat!”