'It's a Calling, Not A Job.'
The Pioneers of Cook Children's Heart Center Program Tell Their Story
For 100 years Cook Children's has built its reputation on taking care of kids who needed help the most. Perhaps no department is an example of that reliability and stability as the Heart Center Program. The physicians within the program are a legacy within themselves with more than 400 years of total experience, made up of more than 30 cardiologists, cardiothoracic surgeons, cardiac intensivists and cardiac anesthesiologists.
And sitting atop that reign of longevity are four cardiologists who have all been at the medical center for more than 20 years of experience.
"If you walk into a room and see a 6-month-old child, and it doesn't make you beam, you shouldn't go into pediatrics," Dr. Readinger said.
Hud Allender, M.D., arrived at Cook Children's in April 1983, after training at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Dr. Allender breezes over what brought him here with modesty, but basically somebody knew somebody who knew that a quality, general pediatric cardiologist was badly needed in Fort Worth.
Ralph Tierney, M.D., came to Fort Worth in 1976 and was the only pediatric cardiologist in town. Dr. Allender joined in 1983 and two of them provided care for the pediatric heart population in the area.
"The lifestyle wasn't too bad. We didn't have the volume we have now," Dr. Allender said. "The worst part I was still pretty new when Dr. Tierney took two weeks off that year at Christmas. So I was basically doing it alone, carrying the whole work load for two weeks."
Two years later, Stephen Lai, M.D., joined his friend Dr. Allender and the two young cardiologists began to establish themselves in the community as the young, go-to-doctors for kids with heart conditions.
"Hud and I trained together. When the opportunity arrived for me to come down here, I found a good environment to work," Dr. Lai said. "All the pediatricians and specialists were committed to giving good patient care. I found Cook Children's to be a bright and congenial place to work. Since then, we have obviously grown and improved incredibly over the year. I'm honored we work here."
The two young physicians saw things growing rapidly over the next couple of years. They were committed to bringing in the best people and latest in technology.
"If you didn't try to do things the best you could, you found yourself falling behind in the field very fast," Dr. Lai said. "Everyone was so committed to their job and keeping up with everything that was happening. Things were moving so fast. It was very exciting. We felt it then and still do today, that any child will receive as good a care at Cook Children's as anywhere else in the country. We're all very proud of that."
Dr. Allender and Dr. Lai were offered spots at other academic hospitals at the time, but they couldn't be lured away and were committed to helping the growth of pediatric cardiology at Cook Children's. They knew they were in the right place for keeping up with the times and working to get the best possible staff.
"I feel proud of what we were doing," Dr. Lai said. "The standard of care is so good. We brought in great surgeons we could be proud of. There were other places that had good cardiologists, but it was the surgeons who separated us from other institutions. Today, I think our surgeons rival any place in the country. There were things we couldn't provide early when we were here, but the hospital leadership was committed to bringing in everyone and everything that was necessary to be one of the best cardiology programs in the country. You still see that today with our leadership. You see the results of what we were building back then in what the Heart Center has become today."
Dr. Lai may sell himself short saying he's proud of the "small part" he played in establishing today's program. But you can still hear that same enthusiasm he brought with him 30 years ago when he talks about the young cardiologists and heart surgeons who currently walk the halls of Cook Children's.
He speaks in awe of the advancements in imaging and the advanced technology to support pre-surgical planning with the new 3D virtual viewing and printing at Cook Children's. Dr. Lai speaks like a proud dad when he talks about how much exciting work is being done now within the Heart Center program.
Richard Readinger, M.D., echoes those sentiments. Dr. Readinger's father was a physician and always steered him toward the profession.
"I looked at my Dad and thought 'We'll never have as much medical advancement as during my Dad's career,' but in fact, we've out-stripped those advancements. We will see even more major changes, in genetics for example. I have no idea exactly what the future holds, but it's incredibly promising.""
Dr. Readinger spent 10 years at Arkansas Children's Hospital before arriving at Cook Children's in the late 1980s.
By this point, Dr. Tierney had retired and it was only Dr. Allender and Dr. Lai. Dr. Readinger saw the possibilities of a cardiology program in Fort Worth, but felt the program was stagnant until the merger of the two hospitals at the time became what we know today as Cook Children's.
"In a lot of ways, Fort Worth's cardiology program was still in the dark ages," Dr. Readinger said. "It was a basic, minimal program. It was moving along very slowly and without the facility we couldn't do much. Once the facility came into place, a lot of other things started happening quickly."
From the dark ages, Dr. Readinger said the program has come light years into the established program currently found at Cook Children's.
"We're very state-of-the-art now," Dr. Readinger said. "In pediatric cardiology, your program lives and dies by your cardiac surgery team. If you don't have that, you are never going to develop. Gradually, we were able to get to that point once Vincent Tam arrived. Once Dr. Tam came here, we were really able to develop our program. We really owe everything we have become to him."
With three cardiologists in place and the program rapidly growing, it was time to add someone new. And while this physician was the last of the four to arrive, Susan Hess, M.D., achieved a first in the area. Dr. Hess was the first female pediatric cardiologist in Tarrant County.
"It is an accomplishment that makes me very proud," Dr. Hess said.
When Dr. Hess graduated from Baylor College of medicine in 1985, she said about 25 percent of the class were women. When she arrived at Cook Children's she was used to being the minority, but she was pleased to see she was welcomed with open arms.
"Everyone treated me extremely well," Dr. Hess said. "There was a great camaraderie among the physicians at Cook Children's. I was treated well by everyone, not just the physicians, but all the support staff was very welcoming as well. We all knew everyone's name back then â€“ the nurses, environmental services, respiratory care, everyone."
All the doctors talked to for this article agree the biggest change during their tenure at Cook Children's have been the advances in subspecialization seen today.
"We wore so many different hats when I arrived at Cook Children's," Dr. Hess said. "As cardiologists, we spent time in post-operative care with patients. We interacted with anesthesiologists. Cardiac anesthesiologists were just getting going back then. Many times it was a general anesthesiologist who did the surgery. We all worked closely with them. We didn't have cardiac intensivists then either. We worked with the general intensivists. Dr. (Britt) Nelson was the head pediatric intensivist at that time. "
Dr. Hess brought with her another first. She was the original cardiologist trained to perform fetal echocardiograms before Lisa Roten, M.D., "took over the torch" to lead the program.
In retrospect, Dr. Hess says the Cook Children's administrators were visionaries in forming Cook Children's Health Care System and adding a physician network, home health, medical center and other companies all under one umbrella.
Even though she's been at Cook Children's for more than 25 years, Dr. Hess says she's still a bit in wonder of where she works. She says there's not a day that goes by when she walks the halls of the medical center she doesn't thinks about how much growth she's seen not only in the size of the facility, but the advances in medical care.
"I always thought, and still think, that Cook Children's was such an amazing place," Dr. Hess said. "The focus on patient care in 1993 was unsurpassed and the dedication of all the individuals working at Cook was surpassed by no one. I thought the family-focused care was fantastic. We've grown a lot, but I think we've managed to keep that aspect of care."
Through the years, the cardiologists interviewed for this article have seen patients grow up. They've received graduation announcements, wedding invitations, personal letters of thanks and so much more. Those achievements leave Dr. Hess proud of the role she has played in her patients' recovery.
"It's a calling, not a job," Dr. Hess said. "You must have compassion and be able to relate to and help people."
Much has changed over the years, but the legacy of these pioneers remains: taking care of children.
Cook Children's Heart Center
At Cook Children's Heart Center, you'll find top pediatric cardiologists and cardiovascular surgeons with expertise in an extensive list of specialties and subspecialties. Our doctors are known for their ground-breaking surgical techniques and heart-mending technologies. And from newborns, infants and children to adults with congenital heart defects, you'll find that our focus is always on the one child, the one family, that matters most — yours. If you would like to schedule an appointment, refer a patient or speak to our staff, please call our offices at 682-885-2140. Click here to learn more about our team.