0812HEARTAUDIOINTERVIEW2John Smallwood, whose life was the first saved at the Ronnie Green Heart Center, describes his heart attack.
0812HEARTAUDIO1Bill Sutton Sr., describes his experience with Ronnie Green Heart Center.
A decade ago, John Smallwood was on the golf course when he felt a tightness in his chest. Contrary to the pleas of his group, he opted out of going to the doctor and finished the round.
The tightness persisted later that evening, and after bingo at the American Legion, Smallwood’s friend, Ann Parks, insisted she drive him to the hospital. He agreed.
Turns out he was having a heart attack.
Ten years later, he is still on the golf course twice a week, thanks to the Ronnie Green Heart Center.
“I can’t thank the doctors enough, because I was a lot worse than I thought I was,” Smallwood said. “If it hadn’t been for going and taking the time, I might not be here today.”
That was the first life saved at the Ronnie Green Heart Center. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the heart center, located on the main campus of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.
Since the center’s inception in 2002, more than 67,000 patients have received cardiovascular care.
Nearly 9,000 of those were interventions, inserting stents and performing angioplasties, and almost 7,000 have undergone heart surgeries.
“We have one of the top cardiac programs, from the bottom up, in the country and I will guarantee you that,” said Dr. Daniel Winston, director of cardiac surgery and surgical director of the Ronnie Green Heart Center since 2002. “There is nothing that anyone else in the county can offer that we cannot do as well, if not better. I truly believe that.”
Prior to 2002, the medical center offered very few cardiac procedures. Today, patients can undergo open-heart surgery, cardiac interventions and diagnostic procedures.
The center provides those patients a place to recover from surgery and a place to have interventional procedures done, including angioplasty and stent placement.
“It’s a philosophy within the hospital as well as a place to provide the best medical and cardiovascular care for the patients at Northeast Georgia, and I think we’ve done a damn good job at it,” said Dr. J. Jeffrey Marshall, interventional cardiologist at the Northeast Georgia Heart Center and director of the cath lab. “We’re known around the country as one of the best heart centers.”
The center prides itself on staying ahead of the curve through research and technology but still focusing on the patients and their families.
‘Convinced they would do a good job’
Bill Sutton Sr. was the first patient to undergo open-heart surgery at the center.
On Aug. 12, 2002, he underwent a single-bypass after his family doctor found a skip in his heartbeat.
The doctors at the center told him if he did not undergo surgery, a heart attack likely would be fatal.
“In talking with them I was convinced, after seeing the pictures of the blocked vessels and everything; I didn’t want to take the chance of having a heart attack and it being fatal,” Sutton said. “I was convinced they would do a good job, and I was surely right about that.”
Sutton, who has five children, said the doctors and staff at the center not only made him feel a part of the process, but included his family in the conversation as well.
“The service that they gave me was just excellent, but they also took care of my family,” he said. “They communicated with them from the very start. It made me feel comfortable, and the fact they communicated with them made me feel real good.”
Ten years later, he has no issues.
“We take our jobs very, very seriously,” Winston said. “We give it our all. ... We’re going to give (patients) the same kind of quality as we would expect our family members to get. I think that’s where some of that comfort comes from.”
Smallwood was also one of the first patients to undergo surgery in the center. A few days after his heart attack, doctors performed a triple-bypass to repair some valves in his heart.
Today, he walks around with a permanent pacemaker and defibrillator.
“They took care of me pretty good, I guess,” Smallwood said. “I was just glad to get up and walk out of there.”
Center a living legacy for Green family
But it’s likely the care the two men received, along with the thousands since, would not have been possible without the donation of Frank and Lillie Mae Green.
In March of 2001, Frank and Lillie Mae’s son, Ronnie, died of a heart attack at age 55.
In December that year, the Greens donated $4 million from Ronnie’s estate through The Medical Center Foundation to benefit the center’s new open-heart program.
“They wanted to make sure no one had to go through the loss that they had,” said Nancy Colston, executive director of the foundation. “They really wanted to create a special legacy so the memory and story of Ronnie’s life would continue.”
Ronnie, following graduation from college, returned to work in the grocery store his parents founded, Green’s Grocery Store, and became well known to patrons.
His story, doctors, hospital officials and patients said, will live on through the saved lives of thousands.
Marshall said the center named in Green’s honor offers a better chance of survival to those experiencing heart attacks like his than most places in the world.
“There are very few places you could go in the world today, have a heart attack the way that Ronnie Green did some 12, 13 years ago, and have a better chance of survival than at the Ronnie Green Heart Center,” said Marshall.
Since the center’s opening, $4 million more has been raised to advance the medical care at the center, including the progression of minimally invasive heart surgery.
“The level of health care we have here today and the quality of life that we have is because of the people in the community and this region’s and their generosity and their willingness to make a difference,” Colston said.
But she said it’s not just the money, building or technology that makes the difference: it’s the people.
“You can have a wonderful building, but if you don’t have the professionals and the team it’s not going to work,” Colston said. “It’s the combination of everything that comes together. I think it is incredible. ... I think there is no limit of what we will see 10 years from now.”