the chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital reflects on the wide-ranging advances in his field

By megan schade • photos by amessé photography

I fell in love with the beauty of the heart,” said Robert F. Tranbaugh, M.D., chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. Growing up the child of a nurse and a pharmacist, a love of the sciences ran in the family. “I originally set out to become a biochemist, but I found that I needed something more tangible, more visceral, and so headed towards medicine.”

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After graduating from the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine in 1976, Dr. Tranbaugh completed general surgery and cardiothoracic surgery residencies at the University of California, San Francisco. “I was drawn to surgery because of the immediacy of identifying the problem and the surgical solution to fix it,” he said. “All areas of medicine are solution oriented, but with surgery, the solution is literally in one’s hands.”

“The 1970s and 1980s were an exciting time in cardiac surgery,” Dr. Tranbaugh said. “The field was really coming into its own after techniques had been explored and perfected in the previous decades. Mortality rates from cardiac surgical complications were markedly improved, and patients were living longer, and with a higher quality of life, than ever before. “

Dr. Tranbaugh first joined the faculty at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn as director of pediatric cardiac surgery. He was then selected, in 1991, as the first chief of cardiac surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center, where he built a successful adult cardiac surgery program. Dr. Tranbaugh joined NYP Brooklyn Methodist Hospital in 2015, overseeing all cardiac and thoracic (chest area above the diaphragm) surgery. Although he is skilled in all thoracic surgery procedures, his specialty is surgery of and relating to the heart.

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During the past quarter century, cardiac surgeons throughout the world have been energized by the progress in technique and technology, and leaned in farther than ever to make those numbers even better—resulting in the cutting-edge advances that are practiced at the NYP Brooklyn Methodist Cardiothoracic Surgery Center. The Hospital is one of a handful in the tristate area to utilize extracorporeal membrane oxy-genation (ECMO), an external heart lung machine that oxygenates blood during cardiothoracic surgery and to perform advanced procedures such as transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) and the implantation of ventricular assist devices (VAD), which assist the heart in pumping blood.

NYP Brooklyn Methodist is one of only two hospitals in Brooklyn to offer the TAVR procedure, used for the treatment of life-threatening aortic stenosis (narrowing of one of the main valves to the heart). This minimally invasive procedure allows for patients who may be too weak or too ill to undergo open heart surgery to receive the valve replacement that can greatly extend and often save their lives. Because TAVR is a minimally invasive procedure, patients experience a quick recovery and a short hospital stay.

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“Under Dr. Tranbaugh’s leadership,” said Sebron Harrison, M.D., chief of thoracic surgery at NYP Brooklyn Methodist, “the Department has experienced significant growth, not just in terms of patient volume, but in the services we offer. He facilitated the opening of a new cardiothoracic step-down unit, which provides patients recovering from cardiothoracic surgery specialized care until they are discharged, and his nationally recognized surgical techniques provide long-term impact and benefits for our patients. ”

Dr. Tranbaugh has always focused on what can be done more efficiently and with better outcomes. He was at the forefront of reinterpreting the traditional coronary arterial bypass graft procedure, also known as CABG. CABG is performed when an artery is clogged, blocking the flow of oxygenrich blood to the heart. The procedure takes part of a blood vessel from elsewhere in the body (the “graft”) and attaches one end to the heart’s aorta and the other end to an artery beyond the clog—effectively bypassing the clogged artery. Traditionally, the graft was taken from the arteries in the chest or the veins in the leg. Dr. Tranbaugh was one of the first to take the graft from the radial artery in the forearm. Compared to grafts from elsewhere in the body, the use of the radial artery in CABG resulted in higher survival and longer lives.

“Dr. Tranbaugh has raised the bar on the quality of cardiac surgery,” said his colleague, Terrence Sacchi, M.D., chief of cardiology at NYP Brooklyn Methodist. “’Excellence’ best describes him; excellence surgically, clinically, and in judgment.” And the expectation of excellence permeates his department. “Dr. Tranbaugh’s expertise and experience shattered a lot of the dogmas that were drilled into my head over the years,” said Iosif Gulkarov, M.D., cardiothoracic surgeon at NYP Brooklyn Methodist. “People like him allow for innovation and pushing the limits. His support inspired my growth as a surgeon.”

“The cardiac team here—Iosif Gulkarov, M.D., Berhane Worku, M.D., Terrence Sacchi, M.D. and the entire Division of Cardiology as well as the cardiac care and operating room nurses and intensivists—are a uniquely smart, energetic, and talented group of people,” said Dr. Tranbaugh. “When work is as intense as ours can be, having a fluid collegiality with your team is essential. It takes a well-oiled machine to keep the heart pumping like it should—and I am delighted to say that we have an absolutely terrific team.”

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To counter that intensity, Dr. Tranbaugh and his wife of many years, Margaret, head up to the Finger Lakes region to unwind each summer. “I’ve found that the sunshine, sailing, and being surrounded by my family is the perfect counterbalance for the operating room.” During the rest of the year, nothing brings him more joy than coming home from the hospital at night, seeing his family and sometimes Skyping with his one-year-old grandson. “Family means everything. Our cardiac team’s goal is to provide the very best surgery and the most compassionate care possible, so that our patients are able to enjoy their families for many years to come.”

NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital
506 6th Street / 718.780.3000 / www.nyp.org/brooklyn