by Luke Russell
During his two years as director of Ohio State’s Heart and Vascular Center, Thomas Ryan, MD, has applied the same skills he used to build the Duke Heart Center into one of the Top-10 heart programs in the nation. Hiring and keeping the best talent, building the best infrastructure, growing research and clinical programs, and earning the support of University and Medical Center leaders are all in Ryan’s formula for success.
Big career changes can be daunting, especially when they’re unexpected. A move to Columbus was the last thing on the mind of Thomas Ryan, MD, when, as then director of the Duke Heart Center in Durham, N.C., he paid a visit to Ohio State to consult on its Heart and Vascular Program nearly three years ago. Ryan is a leading expert on cardiac ultrasound technology whose work focuses on applying cutting-edge echocardiographic techniques to diagnose heart and vascular conditions. Ryan co-authored Feigenbaum’s Echocardiography, the leading textbook in the field of cardiovascular ultrasound.
“During my visit, I was impressed with the people I met, the facilities, the leadership. I’d never really expected to be moving at that point in my life, but it was such a great opportunity. It just felt like the right thing to do, so we decided to move to Columbus,” says Ryan.
Ryan was named director of The Ohio State University Heart and Vascular Center in July 2007. He also holds the John G. and Jeanne Bonnet McCoy Chair in Cardiovascular Medicine and leads the Medical Center’s Heart Signature Program. Ryan has joined Ohio State at what he considers a significant time, saying the Medical Center has the talent, infrastructure and support from leadership necessary to take a leading role in cardiovascular care in the United States.
“We have in the Heart and Vascular Center an all-star team of excellent clinicians, researchers and teachers, and our leadership is committed to growing and improving our team by recruiting talented people,” says Ryan. “There’s an institutional desire to see the Heart and Vascular Center become a nationally recognized, top program, and I feel very supported here.”
Ryan goes on to acknowledge the role that quality facilities play in delivering quality care. “Since joining Ohio State, I’ve been impressed by how important a state-of-the-art facility can be to the success of a program.” Ohio State completed construction of two additional patient-care floors in the Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital in 2008 (the hospital itself opened in 2004), and the Dorothy M. Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute (DHLRI) was dedicated in 2000. “The Ross Heart Hospital and the DHLRI are outstanding facilities. They help us to recruit and retain top talent and outstanding nursing and support staff. They help us attract excellent students. Although our patients are drawn here because of the quality care we provide, people appreciate modern facilities, and certainly we have one of the finest heart hospitals in the country here.”
Building on these strengths, Ryan is proud of the success Ohio State’s Heart Program has achieved in a number of areas. “We are one of the leading centers in the United States for advanced heart-failure therapies, including left-ventricular assist devices, and we continue to be leaders both from a volume standpoint and an outcomes standpoint. We’ve implemented a regional STEMI program (ST segment elevation myocardial infarction) that has been hugely successful in getting patients with serious heart attacks into our catheterization lab in record time. Our vascular program offers some of the most novel treatments available for vascular diseases, and our electrophysiology program is finding new ways to diagnose and treat heart rhythm disorders that greatly improve the quality of life of our patients.”
Despite these breakthroughs, Ryan believes the future of heart care must be focused on prevention, although he understands it will require a fundamental shift in American culture to achieve it. “I think every cardiologist, really every physician, has to be focused on prevention. There’s so much compelling evidence that shows that’s where we really have to start. We now know many of the major causes of heart and vascular diseases, and we have to figure out a way to get society and our culture in line with the prevention mantra.”
“The solutions are not terribly complicated,” Ryan continues. “It’s diet. It’s exercise. It’s lifestyle. It’s, obviously, not smoking. It’s getting regular checkups and making sure things like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar are normal and, if they’re not normal, getting them treated and being very compliant with treatment. The problem we face is not a lack of awareness – these days, most people know what they need to do. I think the greater issue is a lack of will-power. In many circumstances, applying these solutions requires people to make major lifestyle changes and that can be very difficult. As a society, we’re not very good with heart health. In fact, you could make the argument that we’re headed in the wrong direction. Obesity, inactivity – they’re all on the rise. Our diet is not a particularly healthy one.”
The key to overcoming these cultural obstacles? Ryan says we have to start young. “We have to help people embrace the notion of a healthy lifestyle very early in life to successfully prevent disease. It’s so much more effective in the long-term than waiting until you have disease and then trying to treat it. But it’s a difficult sell. You’re asking young people to recognize the importance of a lifestyle decision that may not affect them for 30 or 40 years.”
But Ryan is up to the challenge. “It sounds a little cliché, but I can’t imagine having made a luckier decision from a career standpoint, in terms of the impact this work has on people’s lives and the improvements in care and outcomes we’ve achieved in recent decades. I’m a cheerleader when it comes to the field of cardiology, and I encourage students and staff to pursue a career in cardiology if they have an interest. It really is exciting.”
Enjoying running and cycling for fitness and relaxation, Ryan practices what he preaches. “I still run about three or four days a week, and there’s a group of us here at the Medical Center who ride on weekends.” As of this writing, Ryan was training with his fellow riders for Pelotonia, the August cycling tour in support of cancer research. “We’re gonna do the full thing,” he says of the 180-mile course. “The goal will be to keep up with Lance [Armstrong], not let him get too far ahead.”
Ryan is married to Cindy, a retired nurse who now focuses on volunteer work. They have three children – Megan, who is pursuing a master’s degree in health administration at Georgetown University; Kaitlin, who is a cardiac nurse for the Duke University Health System; and Patrick, who is a senior majoring in communications at Ohio State.
Ryan earned his medical degree and served an internal medicine residency and research fellowship in cardiology at Indiana University. As a member of the Duke University Medical Center faculty from 1995 to 2007, he also earned his MBA. Although this makes for a solid academic and professional background, it can be a source of internal conflict during college basketball season. “Basketball season is tough for me,” he admits. “I have three teams to pull for now in basketball, but in the fall there’s only one football team I root for, and that’s the Buckeyes.”