On Being an Interventional Cardiologist
Hank Smith, MD, shares why he chose a career as an interventional cardiologist—and why his career in that field has been so rewarding.
For Hank Smith, MD, interventional cardiologist at Cone Medical Group HeartCare at Church Street, “Intervention” isn’t just part of his job title. His passion to step in and help people suffering from heart disease has been a guiding force in his life since his years as a student at Harvard Medical School.
A formative experience
The year was 1976, and Smith was 24. On one of his first rotations, he was taking care of a patient who had had a major heart attack. In those days, treatment for heart attacks was mostly passive—monitoring the person in the hospital, administering pain medication and hoping for the best.
“I stayed up all night—one of the first times I ever stayed up all night,” says Smith. “I remember that he was writhing in pain. We were giving him pain medications, and it just bothered me. It seemed that we should be able to do something more.”
Although Smith didn’t decide to go into interventional cardiology then and there, the experience stuck with him.
Finding Interventional Cardiology
After developing an interest in cardiology at Emory University in Atlanta, Smith looked for a place to practice clinical cardiology. The Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro already possessed an acute interventional cardiology program in the mid- 80s, which was providing the kind of care that Smith was interested in.
“Rather than being passive and giving medications and sitting around letting the people fry their heart with a closed vessel, we were actually going to the cath lab with catheters and opening the arteries,” says Smith. “It was one of the few places doing that at that time, and probably the thing that attracted me to Moses Cone Hospital.”
A dream come true
As more hospitals adopted these kinds of procedures, the mortality rate for heart attacks dropped from 25 percent 30 years ago to 5 percent today. And during that three decade period, Moses Cone Hospital’s reputation for quality heart and vascular care grew. “A lot of people have heard about Moses Cone Hospital now,” Smith says. “That’s like a dream come true for me—being able to work at a place where you know you’re doing a good job, and you get recognized for doing it.”
The thrill of caring for people with severe heart attacks—and doing something for them—has stuck with Smith, even after nearly 30 years in interventional cardiology. He recalls another patient from out of state who was visiting his daughter in Gibsonville and came to the emergency department with a serious heart attack. The team performed CPR on him for 30 or 40 minutes, and after a while Smith wondered whether he would make it. But Smith opened up two blocked arteries, and he pulled through. The patient went back home, went back to his job, and for about a dozen years, around Thanksgiving, Smith received a card from him thanking Smith for allowing him another year of life.
Looking ahead, and back
In addition to being a practicing clinician in interventional cardiology, Smith was on the Cone Health Board of Trustees, serving as chairman for three years—something he never anticipated. “That was totally off my map and probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve had in my career,” he says. “It gave me a totally different perspective of health care and heightened my understanding that health care is a team effort.”
As Smith looks ahead to the future of medicine and interventional cardiology in particular, he sees potential in less-invasive heart procedures, genomics (genetic mapping to better understand disease) and preventive health care. “I think genomics and prevention will be huge as far as vascular disease is concerned going forward.”
Whatever the innovations in heart and vascular care, Smith is likely to be involved.
“I love what I do,” he says. “For the nearly 30 years that I’ve been here I’ve had the opportunity to practice in a way that prevents me from that feeling I had as a 24-year-old.”
“One of my greatest feelings,” he adds, “is taking people to the cath lab—hurting, in terrible pain—and being able to open the arteries as fast as I can, and actually have people who feel like sitting up and wanting to hug my neck when the pain goes away. It is pretty incredible.”