Heart Valve Clinic Tour: Keeping Up With Doctor Chitwood At The East Carolina Heart Institute

By Adam Pick on February 17, 2010

Life is fantastic mixture of good days, tough days, great days and, sometimes, bad days. However, every once in a while, we are fortunate to experience… extraordinary days.

Recently, in Greeneville, North Carolina, I had one of those rare, extraordinary days.

“What the heck happened to Adam?” you might be wondering.

Well… I was very fortunate (and very lucky) to spend the day touring the East Carolina Heart Institute with Dr. Randolph Chitwood.


W. Randolph Chitwood - Heart Surgeon, Greeneville, North Carolina
Dr. W. Randolph Chitwood – East Carolina Heart Institute


While Dr. Chitwood is internationally recognized as a leading heart surgeon and pioneer of the robotic mitral valve repair, I quickly learned that Dr. Chitwood’s appreciation of life is equally important. Doctor Chitwood has been married for 40+ years to Tamara Chitwood. Together, they have two children, Anne and Randolph, and a grandson, Keller.

“Hey there Adam! So glad you could make it!” Dr. Chitwood said to me as he handed Kristin Bolton, his executive assistant, a newly framed photo. “Listen, we have a lot lined up for you today. But, how about we start with a tour of the gallery?”

In the next sixty seconds, I learned two more things about the past-president of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons, the largest organization of cardiothoracic surgeons, and founding member of The International Society of Minimally Invasive Cardiac Surgery.

  • First, Dr. Chitwood is an incredible photographer with a brilliant gallery that lines the third floor walls of the newly built East Carolina Heart Institute (ECHI). The pictures exhibit Dr. Chitwood’s fascination with foreign cultures and domestic objects. My favorite picture was a monk from Angkor Wat, located in present-day Cambodia.
  • Second, I learned that keeping up with Dr. Chitwood takes effort… real effort. Not only does the Virgina-native and Duke-trained physician walk at a vigorous, heart-pounding pace. But, his ability to stimulate and share ideas through rapid-fire discussion is equally impressive.

“It’s not easy keeping up with Dr. Chitwood and his vision for ECHI,” noted Jerome Fuller, the Director of Telecommunications, Networks and Special Projects. “But, that’s what makes this place so exciting… After 6 years working together, Dr. Chitwood is somewhat of a father figure to me.”

While Dr. Chitwood was in the operating room for a morning case, Dr. Douglas Privette showed me through the new, $200 million facility which opened in January, 2009 and maintains over 120 patient rooms. As the tour progressed, a sense of “Wow!” came over me as I began to understand the turn-key capabilities of this cardiac care clinic.

“I think we’re doing something unique here,” Dr. Chitwood suggested to me. “We are harnessing a special synergy that co-locates multiple disciplines in a patient-centric environment.”

On that note, the ECHI is not only patient-centric, it is patient-friendly. For example, the patient rooms are very spacious, naturally bright, have wireless Internet connections and provide caregivers a convertible chair-bed to sleep overnight. (My gut tells me that Dr. Chitwood’s own experience, as a cardiac bypass patient, may have impacted the design, purpose and layout of the accommodations.)

While the patient rooms were impressive, I was also fascinated with ECHI’s six, cardiac operating rooms. Yes… I was incredibly lucky. As shown below, Doctor Chitwood invited me into his operating room as his morning case, a minimally invasive MAZE procedure, came to a successful close. (FYI, I will never forget seeing the patient’s heart return to rhythm…. Ab-soooooooo-lutely amazing.)


Dr. Chitwood And Adam Pick
Dr. Chitwood & Me (In A Surgical Suit)


If that wasn’t enough, Dr. Chitwood then guided me through the other operating rooms which were active with multiple medical teams performing heart valve replacements, valve repairs and CABG procedures.

During lunch, I met several members of Dr. Chitwood’s administrative and support team. Our discussion touched on several interesting topics including patient tracking, surgical outcomes, valvular advances, prosthetic valve durability, minimally invasive technology, the launch of a new valve clinic and more.

“We strive to get it right for the patient,” Dr. Chitwood said as he held up a sandwich in his left hand. “To do that, we are getting the entire staff on the same page with appropriate motivations and incentives. While you may not think of Greenville, North Carolina as a leading cardiac care center in the world, give us some time. People often think this town may be too small to become the next Mayo Clinic. That is when I remind them that the Mayo Clinic is in Rochester, Minnesota. When the Mayo was founded, Rochester’s population was much less than ours.”

Dr. Chitwood may not need much, if any, time to further establish the ECHI brand. Today, the facility performs over 1,000 cardiac surgical, 2,500 interventional, and 4,000 diagnostic catheter-based procedures on an annual basis. Interestingly, about 60% of its patients come from distances greater than 500 miles away. (So you know, many of my readers have crossed the country to get operated on by Dr. Chitwood.)

Although Dr. Chitwood was called back to the operating room for an afternoon case, my tour would continue with one final stop… The Robotic Training Center.

As we shook hands and said our good-byes, Dr. Chitwood introduced me to Susan Bewith, the Director of ECHI’s Robotic Training Program. Under the direction of Dr. Chitwood and Dr. Wiley Nifong, the center has become the world’s largest, cardiac robotic training center – having certified over 300 global surgical teams.

After an interesting tutorial, Susan positioned me at the terminal of the one-and-only da Vinci robot. For the next fifteen minutes, Susan coached me through the process of using the robot – as if I was a surgeon.

Everything about this da Vinci experience was beyond expectation. From the remote, 3D visual display to the touch-sensitive robotic pinchers. To use a cliche, I was a “kid in a candy store” as I learned how to maneuver the robot used primarily for mitral valve repair and, more recently, aortic valve replacement.


Adam Pick At The Da Vinci Surgical Robot Controls
My da Vinci Robot Simulation


Following the da Vinci simulation, Susan escorted me to my car. As I drove away from ECHI, I picked up my phone and called Robyn, my wife.

As you may have guessed, Robyn eagerly asked me, “So, how was it?”

I responded with, “Today was an extraordinary day.” 🙂

Keep on tickin!

Written by Adam Pick
- Patient & Website Founder

Adam Pick is a heart valve patient and author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery. In 2006, Adam founded HeartValveSurgery.com to educate and empower patients. This award-winning website has helped over 10 million people fight heart valve disease. Adam has been featured by the American Heart Association and The Wall Street Journal.

Adam Pick is a heart valve patient and author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery. In 2006, Adam founded HeartValveSurgery.com to educate and empower patients. This award-winning website has helped over 10 million people fight heart valve disease. Adam has been featured by the American Heart Association and The Wall Street Journal.

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