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Pepin Heart Hospital surgeons get in their cardiovascular work

TAMPA PALMS — With the profound belief that people should practice what they preach, Dr. Marc Bloom pushes himself to the point of exhaustion, sweating profusely as his legs trek forward on the elliptical machine.

He and Dr. Ernesto Jimenez, who occupies the machine next to him, know they have to get in at least 20 more minutes of cardio before they can start weights at the New Tampa YMCA, where they meet five days a week at 5:30 a.m.

Dr. Richard Morrison pedals hard in a standing position on the speed bike just a few feet away from where his colleagues are burning calories. He's also a member of the workout group, but he prefers biking to just about everything else. He doesn't attempt weights, opting instead to crank up the resistance on the speed bike.

After they've broken a sufficient sweat, they generally shower and eat breakfast at their homes in Tampa Palms' West­over and the Reserve, and Temple Terrace.

Then, they head in to perform life-changing heart surgeries at Pepin Heart Hospital at University Community Hospital on Bruce B Downs Boulevard.

Making connections

Morrison will head to Wesley Chapel today because it's his turn to see patients who can't make the trip to North Tampa.

After graduating from Georgetown University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, he traveled to Boston for his residency. There, he happened upon a colleague of Bloom, who pointed him in the direction of Florida.

"I needed a guy that I didn't have to train and who would be ready to work as soon as he came," Bloom said. "So I brought him down."

At 42, Morrison's the youngest of the hospital's five heart surgeons, but he doesn't let being the baby color his attitude about Pepin.

In fact, he's had a lot of good luck at the hospital.

"I met my wife, Dawn, there," he said. "She's a surgical technician and we've been married for two years."

He also made friends with the Bloom family — which shares his enthusiasm for biking.

"We'll go out to Flatwoods Park on the weekend or some of the trails in Tampa Palms and just bike all day," he said.

Bloom, 53, said he believes that Morrison is the only one who can keep up with his 16-year-old son.

"We get out there and they just take off," Bloom said. "And I am just settled back there in the dust."

Jimenez, 47, agrees that Bloom is not the most athletic person in his family.

"If you really want to see fitness," he joked. "You should go meet his wife."

Knowing his role

"Awww, we can't find the West Virginia fight song," said Denise Foto, clinical manager for the Cath Lab, where X-rays of the veins and arteries are taken. "That always gets Dr. Bloom motivated."

She jibes once or twice more about his lead vest and skirt for X-rays being in the Mountaineers' Old Gold and Blue colors, and then lays it on thick to really push his buttons.

"You know we could never do anything around here without you," Foto jokes.

But Bloom, who graduated from the West Virginia University School of Medicine, knows that patient care is more than a one-person job.

"It takes 100 people to serve every patient — at least," he said. "From the nurse at admittance to the person who brings you water, everyone is important to the process."

Bloom doesn't let the stress of his sometimes 12-hour days and 24 hours on call change his approach toward patients.

He said if the person who brings your water is rude, it will color your entire hospital experience. Despite any medical success, you'll remember how you were treated by that one person, Bloom said.

"I'm just the quarterback. All the other players need to be in the right position for anything to work," he explained.

A test of skills

Charles Riopelle lies on the operating table with his heart exposed and a team of doctors, physician's assistants and nurses all working frantically around him to perform a triple bypass.

"He's a victim of his disease," Bloom says of the 65-year-old's diabetes.

"It's very difficult for diabetics to lose weight and it's really a total body disease."

The surgery takes longer than usual because Bloom runs into a difficulty at every step.

But with a Hillsborough Community College student observing the procedure, Bloom does not allow anything to ruffle his Southern charm.

He calls for tools like Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy. He tells the anesthesiologist to "Hold your breath," signaling him to pause the patient's respirator, or "heat the meat," meaning warm the heart.

And the team, much like a NASCAR pit crew, works in unison to get Riopelle back to his room and awake before dinner time.

Riopelle has a considerably thick layer of fat on his heart that has made the surgery that much more difficult.

It's yet another reason why Bloom rises before the sun and gives his muscles a good workout. He stood in surgery for 41/2 hours, without a single break.

"The days when I don't work out, I think it's harder for me to stand (for hours on end) than the days when I do," he said.

Once Riopelle is back in his room, nurse Vivian Clark takes over his care. Bloom couldn't have more faith in her care.

Clark, like most nurses in the unit, is a veteran, having worked for 30 years in cardiac surgery.

"I was here at day one when they opened the unit," she said. "The nursing population is really aging around here."

"When my mother had surgery, I made sure Vivian took care of her," Bloom said. "If she quits, I'm going too."

Power and pride

Jimenez sits in his office across the street from the hospital, reviewing documents and preparing to do consultations for the worried people who sit in the lobby.

The native Cuban and graduate of Brown University and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine wears two hats at the hospital.

Not only is he a heart surgeon, but he also takes the reins in several of the hospital's research projects.

The project he's most fascinated with is stem cell therapy for open heart surgery, where stem cells are harvested from the patient's bone marrow and implanted into places where cellular function has stopped to stimulate new life.

"There's nothing controversial about it," he said.

For his successes, he gives partial credit to his wife, Wendy, who he says provides the world's best support system at home.

"Family is so important in a job like this," he admitted. "The long hours and stress can really take a toll on a relationship and to have someone who is supportive is a blessing."

And when he's not advancing medicine, Jimenez is a judo champion, winning the Sunshine State Games in 2000.

"He's our linebacker," Bloom said of the hulking man with the gentle hands. "One time I watched him lift 450 pounds on the bench press."

Jimenez admitted he was slightly larger and more physical than your average doctor, but he takes the most pride in being a heart surgeon.

"I saw one of my patients seven years after a heart surgery, and he remembered me and thanked me for my work," he said.

"He was 85 at the time of the surgery, so to see him up and walking around at 92 was amazing and special for me."

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at rmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5313.

Heart of the matter

• There are only five heart surgeons at Pepin Heart Hospital at University Community Hospital.

• The average heart surgeon has at least 14 years of post-high school education.

• Malpractice insurance for a heart surgeon can be as high as $50,000 annually.

• A surgeon at UCH is paid around $2,200 for a standard bypass surgery, which can take from three to five hours and cost tens of thousands to perform.

Pepin Heart Hospital surgeons get in their cardiovascular work 03/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2008 1:45pm]

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