Top heart surgeon returns to All Children’s, 3 years after being pushed out

The heart surgery program’s mortality rate spiked after the surgeon left, a 2018 Times investigation revealed.
Dr. James Quintessenza, left, will return as the head of the Johns Hopkins All Children's heart surgery program department.
Dr. James Quintessenza, left, will return as the head of the Johns Hopkins All Children's heart surgery program department. [ UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY HOSPITAL | Times ]
Published Oct. 16, 2019

Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital has hired a familiar face to help it restart its troubled heart surgery unit.

Dr. James Quintessenza will return as the department’s chief surgeon and co-director, hospital leaders announced Tuesday.

Quintessenza, 62, oversaw the pediatric heart surgery department at All Children’s for almost two decades. But he was pushed out after the hospital became part of the Johns Hopkins system.

Since then, he has been chief of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

All Children’s suspended heart surgeries after a Tampa Bay Times investigation last year found the mortality rate had spiked to one of the highest in the state following Quintessenza’s departure.

Related: RELATED COVERAGE: Johns Hopkins promised to elevate All Children’s Heart Institute. Then patients started to die at an alarming rate.

In a memo to hospital employees, hospital president Tom Kmetz called Quintessenza’s return “the first step in a phased process of restarting the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Heart Institute.”

“We will spend the next year recruiting additional doctors and staff, including for cardiac intensive care, interventional and fetal cardiology,” Kmetz wrote. “We will take whatever time is necessary to do this right.”

Reached by phone, Quintessenza referred questions to the hospital.

“I am delighted to be returning home to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, a remarkable institution where I was proud to serve for more than 25 years,” he said in a statement.

He will begin in February.

Hospital leaders also announced Tuesday that Dr. Bill Greeley would stay on as the Heart Institute’s deputy director through the transition period.

Greeley was one of the national experts who was hired earlier this year to assess the Heart Institute and determine an appropriate timeline to restart surgeries.

The announcement comes after a tumultuous 11 months for the hospital and its heart surgery unit.

The Times investigation, published last November, found that the department’s 2017 death rate was higher than any other children’s heart surgery program in Florida had seen in the past decade. Complication rates also spiked, the Times found.

The problems began after Johns Hopkins took over All Children’s in 2011 and started making changes to the heart department. Quintessenza had performed the most difficult surgeries. But the hospital’s new leaders wanted the cases evenly divided among its three heart surgeons.

Frontline workers noticed problems with surgeries performed by the other two surgeons as early as 2015 and raised concerns to their supervisors, the Times reported. But procedures continued as the hospital’s leaders pushed to grow the Heart Institute.

Hospital leaders also made changes to the cardiologists and critical care doctors who worked in the department.

Quintessenza disagreed with the hospital’s leaders, the Times reported. The spike in deaths and complications happened after he left.

After the Times’ investigation, six top administrators resigned, including the hospital’s CEO and the chief heart surgeon who had replaced Quintessenza. Federal and state inspectors identified widespread safety problems throughout the hospital and mandated sweeping changes.

Related: RELATED COVERAGE: Top All Children’s executives resign following Times report on heart surgeries

The hospital has also settled with multiple families whose children died or were seriously injured after heart surgery. So far, the hospital has agreed to pay nearly $43 million in total. The families of two children who were permanently disabled after their surgeries received eight-figure settlements.

Related: RELATED COVERAGE: Johns Hopkins to pay nearly $40 million to two families hurt by All Children’s heart surgeries

“We made a mistake, and we need to make sure we help support these families and make it right,” Johns Hopkins Health System president Kevin Sowers told the Times in June.

Quintessenza, who graduated from the University of Florida School of Medicine, was instrumental in growing the All Children’s heart surgery program.

He performed the first pediatric heart transplant there in 1995. Two years later he became the chief of pediatric heart surgery. The heart transplant program was ranked one of the nation’s best in a 1999 federal government review.

After Quintessenza left in 2016, he was quickly hired by Kentucky Children’s Hospital to help restart its pediatric heart surgery program. The hospital had halted surgeries after its death rate increased in 2012.

In his memo, Kmetz said Quintessenza had been selected for the job at All Children’s following “an extensive national search” for the Heart Institute’s next leader.

“Over the course of his career, Dr. Quintessenza has continually set the bar for delivering exceptional care to patients while operating at the forefront of medical research,” he said.

Kmetz added that the hospital would “continue to collaborate” with state and federal regulators as it moves toward restarting the program.