More than 300 people received new hearts, more than 150 have taken a breath with transplanted lungs, because of Cedric Sheffield's skill as a cardiothroracic surgeon. He has helped make Tampa General Hospital the busiest transplant center in Florida, fourth busiest in the United States. It's been 10 years since he performed the first lung transplant procedure on the west coast of Florida. Yet the director of the Tampa Transplant Institute had seriously considered agriculture over anatomy. Born No. 7 in a farm family of 12 children in De Funiak Springs, Dr. Sheffield, 52, grew up impressed by his parents' self-sufficiency. "We raised everything we needed," he said, "cattle, corn, pigs, sugar cane. We made our own sugar, and in our gristmill, we made flour and meal." Had he chosen planting, he might not have been among the first artificial heart implantation specialists trained specifically in heart failure surgery. The Duke University medical school grad could be replacing irrigation pumps instead of heart valves. He might be grafting new varieties of citrus instead of coronary bypass grafts. Tampa Bay Times reporter Amy Scherzer recently spoke to the South Tampa resident about family, farming and fast food.
What was your first job, other than chores on your family's farm?
I was probably about 14 when I worked for the rodeo, prepping horses, herding cattle, driving a tractor. I did that until I left for college. During that time I honed my horsemanship and became a pretty good calf roper. I seriously considered becoming a farmer.
Who — or what — made you decide to study chemistry at Florida State and pursue a medical profession?
I had a number of mentors, Dr. Shehe, a dentist who was my baseball coach, and Dr. Currie who delivered me, the only medical doctor I knew for many years. He was very devoted to primary care and wanted me to come back to the underserved community.
I was interested in science and did well in school. It was expected of us, my parents were very proactive to further my education. They are among the smartest people I know, including some Nobel laureates.
There must be a great sense of power that comes with the ability to extend a life by repairing or replacing a failing heart. How do you ease your patients' fears?
Knowledge. We go over the details of their disease, goals and expected results so they have a lot of control which is calming. This allows them to use what ever belief system they have to successfully cope.
For me, one of the attractions of cardiothoracic surgery is the solid scientific underpinnings. It's not a lot of mystery or leap of faith to address a failing heart and know that the patient will not only survive the operation, but live a longer and better life.
Big families are the norm to you. Your parents each had 10 siblings, you have 11 siblings … and how many twins did you mention?
Six sets of twins (born to) my three brothers, eight sisters and me. Ours (my wife Denise and I) are 19, college juniors. Cedric Jr. is a bio-chem major at FSU and Sydney is pre-vet at University of California-Davis.
You've done as many as five transplant procedures in a single weekend, plus you describe reading medical journals as "practically another full-time job." Do you ever get a chance to NOT be a surgeon?
I spend as much time outside as possible … boating, fishing, kayaking, camping, gardening. I enjoy being involved in my parents' farm in North Florida which has now been converted to a tree farm.
We're a very musical family. My grandfather could play virtually any instrument and everyone plays an instrument of some kind. I grew up playing drums in marching bands, drum and bugle corps, rock, dance, jazz and orchestra.
Knowing the research as you do, does its seem counterproductive to have a McDonald's selling burgers and fries at Tampa General and other hospitals?
It represents a challenge, as well as an opportunity. TGH is not the first hospital where this is an issue. The CEO at Cleveland Clinic tried very hard to close one. Hundreds expressed their sentiments, myself included. They reached a compromise where that McDonald's has become a testing platform for more healthy offerings.
It's a balance between health and convenience. My family has been very fortunate and blessed with longevity, but the research is very clear. We should all try to eat a more-fish and plant-based diet and limit meat consumption to one or two times a week.
This article was edited for brevity and clarity.