This week, I spoke to Dr. Jim Zocco, Cardiovascular Surgeon and Board Member, about his pending retirement from clinical practice next month. He has worked for over three decades in Richmond and is considered by many to be one of the great patriarchs of the profession.
Tim: What made you choose cardiovascular surgery? If you were going to do it all over again, would you have chosen the same specialty?
Dr. Zocco: I would definitely choose the same specialty. I was lucky when I trained at MCV, I had some great mentors. Dr. Richard Lower inspired me during my training; he was instrumental developing heart transplation. I recall him as being unassuming while being incredibly bright. He was someone I looked up to technically. I knew then that I wanted to do heart surgery from watching Dr. Lower. His work was precise and I enjoyed dealing with patients that were acutely sick in intensive care.
Tim: You have seen Chippenham & Johnson-Willis Hospitals evolve into one of the premier Heart Centers in the state. What do you attribute that evolution to?
Dr. Zocco: It comes down to the staff. We have always had one of the best medical staffs. It takes all those components to make it work: anesthesia, Infectious Disease, pulmonary, renal, cardiology. We have always had the best team in the Operating Room and Intensive Care Unit. Through the years, even when there was turnover, it is really the people who have made us successful. HCA has been instrumental to supporting our growth. We also couldn’t be successful without the superb nursing services. My physician partners have also been great, we are lucky to have assembled a talented team. I would hold their credentials and skills up to anywhere in the country.
Tim: Serving on the Board of Directors for 15 years has given you a different perspective of the organization. What do you hear in those meetings that might surprise others?
Dr. Zocco: The commitment to growth and to making our hospitals #1 in the area. People don’t always understand our focus on quality and interest in being on the leading edge of medicine. I have always been impressed that the Board demands excellence from the medical staff. None of this happens by accident. The Board has done a good job leading by listening to the medical staff for what is required to be an excellent facility.
Tim: You and your colleagues were largely responsible for getting the Levinson Heart Hospital built over 10 years ago. What was the original vision?
Dr. Zocco: We had received one of the first Health Grades awards, everyone was very excited. But, to be honest, it wasn’t our best year. Although we achieved this award, there was more that was needed to improve. We knew we needed to evolve to another level. The idea was born to have a heart hospital. Our vision was that we could build a heart hospital that produced quality at the level of the Cleveland Clinic. We knew it could be a dominate force in the state and the southeast.
Tim: What advice would you give to a new physician just completing their training in 2014?
Dr. Zocco: Several things. Number one, don’t get hung up on the politics of medical care. Whatever is going to be, is going to be. If you don’t like what is being done at the national or state level then you need to figure out how to work within that system to continue the focus on quality. Secondly, technology is changing so rapidly, you have to keep up. It is critical that physicians use continuing medical education credits to really maximize. Third: Don’t forget the patient, that relationship is so important. There are so many obstacles to interacting with the patients but that relationship is the core of what we do. You can’t accomplish what we need to do without a good understanding of the patient and them putting their trust in you. Sometimes the technology and regulations start making the patient get lost. Doctors have to establish that relationship by doing what is right for the patient.
Tim: People outside of healthcare might not realize the significant time commitment and sacrifice required to be a surgeon. How did you find balance between work and family?
Dr. Zocco: Unfortunately, it is difficult to achieve that balance. I don’t feel I was successful at it. I would have rather spent more time with my family. In this job, you don’t always have a choice but to put the patient first. You can’t easily leave town or watch your child’s play when you have a patient in need. I have no regrets, but it is one of the reasons I am going to retire. If someone is sick it trumps everything.
Tim: You have always been on the cutting edge of medicine. What would you guess heart surgery will look like decades from now?
Dr. Zocco: I think it will be completely different. There is a good chance that a significant portion of it will be done by a differently trained surgeon. A lot of what is coming down the line isn’t classic surgical training. There is more endovascular surgery, purcutanous treatment. The doctors needed in the future will need to pick up a lot more skills that we are just beginning to get into now. Transcather valve surgery is an example. In addition, they will still need to be able to do open heart surgery. The surgeon in the future will need to be a better surgeon than we had to be during my career.
Tim: By serving on the Board of Directors for Chippenham & Johnston-Willis Hospitals you have been able to advise a number of CEOs. What advice do you have today?
Dr. Zocco: My advice today is to rekindle the vision of the Levinson Heart Hospital. We need to make sure we stay on the cutting edge of new technology. It takes continued investment. For the hospital in general, it is important to continue doing what you are doing for the quality initiatives. It is important that this hospital distinguishes itself from other community hospitals by being a true tertiary care center. In the future there will be a lot of pressure by the government and payors to only send patients to certain facilities for the more complicated procedures. We want to be sure we are one of them.
If you have a comment or story to share about Dr. Zocco, please share it here on the blog.