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GMC's open heart center 'a dream come true'

Gwinnett Medical Center

Gwinnett Medical Center

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Gwinnett Medical Center's Strickland Heart Center

A look at the Gwinnett Medical Center's Strickland Heart Center, a 40,000 square foot, stare-of-the-art facility.

A look at the Gwinnett Medical Center's Strickland Heart Center, a 40,000 square foot, stare-of-the-art facility.

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Staff Photo: Jason Braverman The new catheterization labs became operational for patients this past week at the Gwinnett Medical Center's Strickland Heart Center. The two new catheterization labs bring GMC's total to four. They are projected to serve 4,000 patients per year.

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Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Dr. Manfred Sandler, who played a key role in bringing open heart surgery to Gwinnett Medical Center, shows the Admission and Recovery Unit for cardiac catherization patients. It includes 12 private recovery bays (shown) that are sized to allow for patient and family interaction.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- This has been a long time coming.

Strolling through the halls of Gwinnett Medical Center's freshly christened Strickland Heart Center this week, Dr. Manfred Sandler was visibly excited. The 40,000 square-foot addition to the west end of GMC's Lawrenceville campus -- which will eliminate Gwinnett's moniker as the nation's largest county without open-heart surgery -- is finally opening in January.

You could tell as much merely by looking at Sandler, a cardiologist who led the campaign to bring the service to Gwinnett.

"It's wonderful for us, it's wonderful for the hospital and more importantly it's wonderful for patient care," Sandler said. "It's just excellent. A dream come true."

After 18 months of construction (and much longer in litigation), the pristine halls of the Strickland Heart Center are now filled with roughly $8 million worth of the latest life-saving technology.

The building's two initial open-heart surgery operating rooms are a spacious 750 square feet apiece. All of the rooms' equipment is suspended from the ceiling via large movable booms, leaving wires off the floor and improving efficiency.

Each OR will be outfitted with an extensive (but simply operated) video system with 16 inputs and five large viewing screens, allowing surgical staff to clearly see everything that's going on and permitting surgeons to quickly summon archived video of previous procedures if need be. Heart rhythm, echo imaging and pressure readings are all integrated and can be read simultaneously.

GMC has projected about 340 open-heart surgeries in 2012. In the past, it's estimated that more than 500 Gwinnett residents annually left the county to undergo the procedure.

Chris Trocchio will be the new center's chief perfusionist, running the heart-lung machine that essentially keeps patients alive during surgery.

"It's phenomenal," he said. "I've been in heart care in Atlanta for 25 years, and it's really a hidden gem. I'd challenge you to go to any (cardiovascular operating room) in town and come back here and compare."

All that's on the second floor.

On the first, there are two fully equipped cardiac catheterization labs, where less invasive procedures like angioplasty and heart stenting take place. Those are almost 950 square feet apiece, complete with serene nature scenes on the ceiling and music of choice pumped through an iPod (patients are typically "semi-awake" during cath lab procedures). Two more labs are ready to be outfitted when a need is shown.

In preparation for its full suite of offerings, GMC began doing angioplasty and stenting in March and has totalled more than 700 procedures to date. In-house projections suggest the hospital would now be ready for more than 4,000 such operations annually.

A sleekly furnished admission and recovery unit boasts 12 private bays for patients and their families.

"We've got the full package," said Wendy Moran, the center's chief cardiac nurse.

GMC Chief Operating Officer Jeff Nowlan came to the system from Houston in 1998. He likes to think of Gwinnett Medical as striving to be "best in class" in all of its offerings, and said the Strickland Heart Center is a big, hard-earned step toward that.

"Coming here and seeing 800,000 people, and no open heart? It was unbelievable," he said this week. "In stenting and open heart, time is of the essence. To put folks into Atlanta traffic and try to ship them to St. Joesph's or wherever, that's not best in class."

Construction crews broke ground on the heart and vascular center last June after a years-long battle to start the process.

In January 2008, GMC sent its application for a certificate of need to state regulators. It was approved that June, but Piedmont, Emory University and Emory Crawford Long hospitals in Atlanta all filed opposition, saying, among other things, that "hospitals need to perform a high number of (open-heart) procedures to maintain quality."

Following the re-approval of GMC's program, all three hospitals again filed administrative appeals.

They were for naught, as the commissioner of the Department of Community Health upheld the original approval in July 2009.

All that was the third time GMC had tried to get a certificate of need for construction, Sandler said, dating back almost 20 years.

"It wasn't easy," Sandler said, "because there was a lot of politics."

Now, the waiting is almost over.

The Strickland Heart Center's catheterization labs are actually scheduled to begin receiving patients Monday, with open heart procedures available starting the second week of January.

"This is a treasure," Trocchio said. "It's really a treasure for Gwinnett County."