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2022 Healthcare Hero: Dr. Robert Gallagher

Winner Category: Physician Employer: Trinity Health of New England Title: Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at St. Francis Hospital and Trinity Health of New England’s Cardiovascular Service Line Leader Return to honoree page
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Dr. Robert Gallagher, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at St. Francis Hospital and Trinity Health of New England’s cardiovascular service line leader, oversees the network of Trinity Health of New England hospitals, specialists and outpatient clinics that address the full spectrum of cardiovascular conditions.

What have been your significant contributions to your organization in the past year?

I am humbled and proud to be part of a team that has rendered care to thousands of COVID-19 patients during a very difficult time for all providers. Many of these patients were acutely ill requiring a high level of care for long periods of time. One patient in particular comes to mind as one of our greater success stories.

In the fall of 2021, Florida resident Robby Walker, husband and father of six, was gravely ill from his battle with COVID-19. His wife, Susan, was on a mission to find a way for him to have a chance to survive and get him into a facility that could provide him with the potentially life-saving treatment called ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. ECMO treatment works by removing blood from the body, eliminating carbon dioxide and adding oxygen to the blood, and then pumping the blood back into the body so the real heart and lungs can have a chance to recover.

The Walker family called every hospital in their home state of Florida, expanding their search to bordering states, with no avail. Eventually Susan made a public plea on CNN. I saw the clip on social media and thought we could help. I reached out to my colleague Angela Sakal, chief perfusionist at St. Francis Hospital, who dug in and tracked Robby down. We reviewed his case and felt it was worth the fight and were able to assist the family to get Robby to St. Francis Hospital in Hartford.

Under the care of our incredible team of physicians, nurses, perfusionists, care management and others, Robby spent 22 days on ECMO treatment before he was discharged from St. Francis to Gaylord Specialty Healthcare for intensive rehabilitation care.

Ultimately on Oct. 13, nearly three months after he was intubated in Florida, Robby boarded an RV with his wife and brothers by his side and made the trip home to Florida where he was reunited with his children, friends and family.

Tell us about a challenge in your job that you were able to overcome.

For every COVID patient, there are unique challenges, and those challenges can be greater the more severely ill the patient becomes. Early on in the pandemic, we were still learning about the virus and the most effective ways to treat it.

ECMO is highly specialized treatment that we typically use for patients whose lungs and heart need added support and time to rest/heal. While it is a potentially life-saving treatment, it’s also important to note that ECMO does not guarantee survival. At the time of Robby’s case, we were seeing about 50% to 60% of COVID-19 patients who go on ECMO survive.

How has COVID-19 changed the way you do your job?

The pandemic taxed our providers and certainly took its toll on all of us. It has impacted so many aspects of the healthcare industry and forced innovation in ways we have never encountered. But when we look to the future, there is hope.

In my specialty, cardiothoracic surgery, we may only be at the tip of the iceberg in the medical advancements and our ability to support the sickest of patients with mechanical devices to rest the heart and/or lungs.

With advancements in AI, genomics, transplantation science, the future for the management of patients with failing organs has never been more hopeful.

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