Tuesday, April 18, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hearts belong in professional's hands

Seattle Times columnist

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. - There is a relationship between a man who once held a live heart in the palm of his hand and the owner of said heart.

If you're lucky, the man who palmed your heart is a professional. He may even be emotionally detached.

But for the guy once stretched out on the operating table, the feeling is one of warm and enduring gratitude toward the masked professional with the skill to put your heart back where it belongs.

Uncounted thousands, still residing on our side of the grave, know what I am talking about:

Heart-bypass surgery.

We are talking about Dr. Jack Sternlieb, the man whom many regard as the best heart surgeon in the nation, possibly the world.

The other day I paid a return visit to Sternlieb at Heart Hospital in this California desert town. It's his hospital; he willed it into being; he designed it; he runs it.

It doesn't look like a hospital - more like a resort hotel. Even some of the medical equipment is hidden. It has marble and tile floors, and leather chairs. Patients are called by name, not room numbers.

As Dr. Jack gave me a tour, I reminded him of a memorable moment when we first met. It was the night before my triple-bypass surgery at nearby Eisenhower Medical Center. He said then, "We have no medical equivalent of Drano to flush out clogged heart vessels. Until we get this Drano, we use surgery."

"Yes," he said, "I remember saying that. Nobody has come up with a heart Drano yet. When they do, we'll be talking about the Nobel Prize."

If the hospital itself is of restrained, deep-toned hue, Sternlieb himself dreams in bolder colors.

In all his years of heart surgery - more than 5,000 such operations - he wanted to design his own hospital. "My hospital," he said, "comes from my years in medicine where I just wasn't happy with what I was seeing."

Sternlieb's mother, Lily, a designer who lives in Rancho Mirage, had much to do with the reassuring interior decor. So did Adam Rubenstein, Heart Hospital's medical illustrator as well as an artist and sculptor.

Sternlieb directs a staff of about 25 carefully recruited physicians. His head nurse at Heart Hospital, Kathy Smith, oversees 15 nurses. That's it for bureaucracy.

There are what might be called 12 "suites" at Heart Hospital. Actually, they are quite large rooms equipped for primary to emergency care. There is no need for a patient to be moved from one room to the next; a single nurse takes the patient from admission to pre-op to recovery to discharge.

"We've made progress since you were at Eisenhower," Sternlieb said. "Now we operate with only a single 3-inch incision under the left breast. We have eliminated most of the patient's post-surgery pain. Our patients usually go home in three days."

A gourmet chef prepares the hospital food. Sternlieb smiled. "He even has his own herb garden outside."

Sternlieb's Heart Hospital, which opened in 1997, is ranked No. 1 in the nation in heart-surgery survival rate. Mortality rate: 0.00 percent.

It was so ranked by an independent rating service, The Web site profiles 600,000 doctors, 5,000 hospitals, 400 health plans and 17,000 nursing homes.

Because Heart Hospital is in the elite category for cardiac surgery, you may get the impression it's only for the elite. By no means.

"Most of our patients are on Medicare," Dr. Jack said. "And most are elderly."

If you are going to have a heart attack - God forbid - there is no waiting list at Heart Hospital. Emmett Watson's column appears Tuesdays in the Local section of The Times.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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