Growing up in southern India, Dr. Chittoor Bhaskar Sai Sudhakar always wanted to be a heart surgeon. His career has taken him from medical school in India to training in England to a residency at The Ohio State University in cardiothoracic surgery and a fellowship at Yale University, also in cardiothoracic surgery.
Now, his home is UConn Health where, as academic chief of cardiothoracic surgery, he has big plans for the program, which offers adult cardiac services and non-oncological thoracic surgery. Traditionally one of the smaller programs in the state, Sai Sudhakar’s vision includes research, educating the next generation of surgeons, and continuing to provide the superb personalized clinical care that UConn is known for.
Sai Sudhakar most recently worked at Largo Medical Center, part of HCA Healthcare’s West Florida Division where he treated severely ill patients with SARS-COVID-19, placing them on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, (ECMO). He is reviewing whether it’s feasible to bring ECMO to UConn Health. Besides SARS-COVID-19, there are other reasons for patients to go on ECMO, he says.
Additionally, Sai Sudhakar has served as chief of cardiac surgery and co-director of the Heart Institute at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center, chief and professor of cardiothoracic surgery at the Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in Texas, and associate professor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery.
His research interests include pulmonary hypertension secondary to left heart failure, mechanical circulatory support devices, heart transplantation, and heart failure secondary to SARS-COVID-19.
Dr. Sai Sudhakar recently spoke with Seasons Magazines. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Q: What’s your overall vision for the department?
A: Over the next couple of years, I’d like to recruit surgeons for cardiac and thoracic surgery and connect with physicians in surrounding communities to let them know about what we offer at UConn Health and UConn John Dempsey Hospital. I would like to increase our research efforts in heart failure and other areas.
Our fellowship is further down the road. It’s a training program for the next generation of cardiothoracic surgeons. The fellows will receive mentorship and will learn the tools and techniques of surgery, but they will also learn how to be empathetic to patients. Teaching hospitals — hospitals that have training programs — have much better patient-related outcomes.
Q: What heart surgery procedures do you plan to offer in the future?
A: In the near future, we are going to start a TAVR (transcatheter aortic valve replacement) with Dr. JuYong Lee, an interventional cardiologist here at UConn Health.
It’s a procedure for patients who need to have a narrowed aortic valve replaced. We will insert a catheter into the groin and guide it to the heart and replace the valve. For several years, I have been part of a heart valve team. We are also planning to offer thoracic endovascular grafting, coronary artery bypass grafting, mitral valve repair or replacement, aortic dissections, complex reoperations, and pulmonary embolectomy.
Q: Tell me about a research project your department is working on.
A: Dr. Yazhini Ravi, who directs the basic, clinical, and translational research for the division of cardiac surgery, is working in collaboration with folks from the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center to gain insights into the cardiac pathologies associated with SARS-COVID-19 infection and is using a small animal model, to study the disease process at a highly restricted biosafety laboratory. As we all know, COVID affects the lungs. However, it also affects the heart in all stages of the disease (mild, moderate, or severe disease) and more often in hospitalized and severely ill patients. Dr. Ravi and her colleagues have developed an animal model to understand the cardiac effects of the virus on the heart. In addition, this model helps in the development and testing of therapeutics and vaccines and their affect the heart and lungs. This will also help us understand and study the short-term and long-term effects of SARS-COVID-19 (long COVID). Because it’s a new virus, there is so much unknown about its long-term effect on humans.
Q: What did you learn while managing patients with SARS-COVID-19?
A: It’s so important to educate the public about the benefits of vaccination and vital that we follow guidelines provided by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and take the appropriate precautions. There will be multiple variants of the virus coming in waves and it is important that we learn to live with it and take the appropriate steps to mitigate the spread of the virus in the communities we live in.
Q: What should patients do to prevent heart disease and avoid surgery?
A: To stay out of the operating room, people should exercise, eat a heart-healthy diet, and maintain good control of diabetes and hypertension. You should focus on modifiable risk factors, like smoking and obesity, for example. All these things accelerate heart disease. Weight control is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Q: What do you like best about working at UConn Health?
A: On the hospital side, we have an excellent group of nurse practitioners and physician assistants who take care of patients after surgery in the intensive care unit under the guidance of critical care physicians. It’s a great team that delivers great care for our patient population. The access to care is superb, it’s right here in Farmington, you don’t have to go downtown. The team is invested in the well-being of patients and focused on delivering evidence-based health care.
On the academic side, it’s a friendly environment, and I’m enjoying collaborating with other faculty members in UConn Health’s Department of Surgery and the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center, as well as The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.
I’m grateful to Dr. Bruce Liang, (interim UConn Health CEO and executive vice president for health affairs and) dean of the UConn School of Medicine, and to Dr. [David] McFadden, Chairman of Surgery, for giving me the opportunity to participate in a leading research university and to develop what will be a top-notch program in cardiovascular surgery.