IN HONOR OF THE 60TH CONSECUTIVE AMERICAN HEART MONTH THIS FEBRUARY, DR. ALEXANDER IRIBARNE, THE CO-DIRECTOR OF STATEN ISLAND’S ONLY DEDICATED HEART INSTITUTE, DETAILS HIS VISION FOR THE FUTURE OF HEART HEALTH IN THE BOROUGH
BY AMANDA McCOY PHOTOS BY AMESSE PHOTOGRAPHY
Often referred to as the engine room of the body, the heart is essential for life. Beating on average 72 times per minute (and over 100,000 times a day), the powerful fist-sized muscle pumps oxygen-rich blood along a 60,000-mile-long network of blood vessels. It’s the primary organ in the vast circulatory system, responsible for carrying life-sustaining nutrients and energy to every cell in the human body. Unfortunately, heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming nearly 700,000 American lives each year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in New York City, Staten Island has the highest rates of premature cardiac death and lung cancer of all five boroughs.
With the only dedicated heart center in the borough, Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) is actively investing in its cardiothoracic program. The hospital’s ongoing mission is to offer complex heart care close to home, provided by a team of highly specialized cardiothoracic experts who are available 24/7, including cardiologists, cardiac anesthesiologists, cardiothoracic unit intensivists, advanced care providers such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants, perfusionists, registered nurses, and patient care assistants. Co-leading that team is Alexander Iribarne, MD, MS, a highly decorated, fellowship-trained cardiothoracic surgeon with a clear vision for the future of SIUH’s Heart Institute.
“During medical school, I was initially drawn to cardiothoracic surgery because of the unique opportunity to have such a significant impact on a patient’s quality of life,” noted Dr. Iribarne, who was appointed chairman of cardiothoracic surgery and co-director of the Heart Institute at SIUH last February. The New Jersey native, who attended Harvard Medical School and went on to complete his surgical training at Columbia and Duke, previously spent seven years as an attending physician at Dartmouth in New Hampshire before the opportunity to step into a chairman role with SIUH allowed him to return closer to home. “My goal was always to come back to the New York area,” he added. “This appointment was a homecoming for me.”
SIUH already had a well-established cardiothoracic program in place when he joined, explained Dr. Iribarne, offering a full suite of surgical and minimally invasive treatments for heart and lung conditions. The program is nationally recognized for excellence and can tout an impressive collection of accolades, including Healthgrades 2023 America’s 50 Best Hospitals for Cardiac Surgery Award and U.S. News & World Reports (2022-2023) High Performing Hospitals for Heart Bypass Surgery designation, among others. But continuous improvement is a guiding principle for the leaders of SIUH, and in his one year at the helm, Dr. Iribarne has already introduced several advancements in the heart and lung programs, including the implementation of state-of-the-art robotic technology and expansion of the institute’s clinical research portfolio.
“We recently received a dedicated robot for the cardiac surgery department,” explained Dr. Iribarne. “Prior to that, we were using the robots in the hospital’s main operating room. Plans for the next year are to expand the robotic surgery offerings from beyond lung surgery to heart surgery, specifically for coronary bypass surgery and valve surgery. That has never been done before at SIUH, and I think it’s going to be a game-changer for patients because it’s an advanced way to approach complex cardiac surgery using smaller incisions, so it allows patients to recover quicker and get back home faster.”
“When surgeons use a less invasive approach, patients have fewer restrictions. They are more mobile and able to get back to their daily activities quicker,” continued the surgeon. Patients who undergo a traditional open-heart operation are faced with some restrictions after surgery. They are instructed not to drive for four to six weeks, for example, and should not lift household items heavier than a gallon of milk.
Another new multidisciplinary program launching this year is ECPR (Extracorporeal Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation), a collaboration with the hospital’s cardiology and emergency departments. “This program allows us to use what is essentially a mini heart and lung machine that is transportable throughout the hospital,” explained Dr. Iribarne. “It can allow us resuscitate patients who experience heart attacks outside the hospital.”
Dr. Iribarne also has a special interest in clinical trials and research which advances cardiac surgery beyond Northwell Health. Serving as the associate director of Cardiac Clinical Research, Dr. Iribarne is currently the principal investigator for a $4 million grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Cardiothoracic Surgical Trials Network and received a second NIH grant on mitral valve repair last fall. SIUH cardiac surgery under Dr. Iribarne’s leadership presently has four open NIH clinical trials, with plans to enroll in additional trials this year.
“At Northwell, there’s a great opportunity to expand the pool of patients we enroll in clinical trials throughout the health system,” he said. “All our research initiatives are focused on being able to improve the quality and safety of cardiac surgery. We are able to offer patients technologies they couldn’t receive outside of trials.”
When asked about the most rewarding aspect of joining the SIUH team, Dr. Iribarne noted he’s proud to be a part of a system that’s dedicated to improving the lives of its patient population. Dr. Iribarne, who also has served as a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy, has treated patients from all backgrounds and walks of life, from public servants such as policemen and firefighters to physicians themselves. “I’ve had several patients who are physicians, and I think that speaks volumes about the program here. They know the medical system and all the hospitals in the state, and they are choosing to receive care here at SIUH. The hospital has invested significantly in the recruitment of talented healthcare experts to be able to offer a strong and comprehensive Heart Institute that can deliver the same care as the top hospitals in Manhattan. That’s huge for Staten Island residents. Heart surgery is not a same-day operation; most patients remain in the hospital post-op for an average of five days. Here, they are in a single-unit room for their entire stay, and their family members can easily visit them without the financial and logistical burden of traveling into Manhattan.”
It’s not uncommon for Dr. Iribarne to receive greeting cards, letters, postcards, or pictures from patients after treatment. One of his most memorable patients is someone he operated on with a torn aorta. Only a couple months later, Dr. Iribarne received a photo of the patient attending his daughter’s wedding, beaming from ear to ear. When the patient’s daughter later gave birth to her first child, Dr. Iribarne received a photo of the proud grandfather, too.
“I’m able to give patients extra years of life and that’s what’s most rewarding,” said Dr. Iribarne.
Lois and Richard Nicotra Heart Institute at Staten Island University Hospital
475 Seaview Avenue
siuh.northwell.edu/heart-institute / 833.744.3278