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Published in CenterView on May 16, 2011

Cardiothoracic surgeon's Internet following leads to 'niche service' for elite athletes

By Patrice Sawyer Guilfoyle

Dr. Lawrence Creswell, an avid triathlete, found a little serendipity while pursuing his hobby, which is leading to a unique service at the Medical Center.

Somewhere around the intense cycling, running and swimming competitions he competes in, Creswell, an associate professor of surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, got the chance to talk with athletes at the top of their game. The conversations usually turned to what everyone did for a living. Creswell, a cardiothoracic surgeon, got more than a few health questions.

Creswell received so many questions that he started a blog, "The Athlete's Heart Blog," to regularly post information about athletes and heart disease, as well as heart-healthy living tips. The blog has had nearly 20,000 visitors since its launch in 2009. He also writes a column for a publication about endurance sports, which also generates health questions.

"They're all people who really don't have a doctor of their own but are bright people who seek out expert care," Creswell said. "Millions of Americans are out there doing some kind of activity, and as prevalent as heart disease is, they need to get screened."

Three of the athletes he's met either through his blog or triathlons have come to the Medical Center for examinations. The medical visits offer an opportunity for a niche service for elite athletes and encourage greater collaboration between heart services and other specialties at the Medical Center, such as orthopedics, anesthesiology and plastic surgery.

One of those blog visitors was 27-year-old cyclist Shana Summers of Clovis, Calif., who discovered the blog while doing physiology homework.

"From there, I contacted him, first just telling him I liked his articles and talking to him about cycling, later telling him what I was dealing with," Summers said. "He said, 'I definitely think I can help you, and if I can't, I will find you someone that can.'"

A former college soccer player on a scholarship at the University of California at Davis, Summers later took up cycling and was a member of UC Davis' collegiate national championship cycling team in 2006. She still cycles and runs in spite of a serious heart condition.

While in college, Summers had been diagnosed with a congenital heart defect – a large atrial septal defect (ASD) with atrial septa aneurysm, ventricular septal defect and diffuse pulmonary arteriovenous malformations (AVM).

She had open heart surgery at another hospital to repair the defect, but she had complications that needed to be treated. She decided to come to the Medical Center to treat an arrhythmia, correct a scar tissue problem and repair a sternal non-union and pectoralis major muscle tear.

What convinced this Californian to travel to Mississippi to have her treatment?

"Dr. Creswell did, and boy did I research him before I went there," Summers said. "I read everything I could find about him and probably talked with him what seems like 500 times. He put up with a lot of questions, but admittedly anyone working with athletes can naturally expect that. We are stubborn."

Summers added that she didn't make the decision lightly. She has a life-threatening condition that required surgery, and she had to consider the expense of traveling to Mississippi.

"I literally emptied my entire savings just to travel there and back for the pre-op alone," she said. "My brother is a resident physician at UC Davis Medical Center, and I had seen other cardiothoracic surgeons, but none of them impressed me as much as Larry did.

"I thought it was important to find a physician, regardless of location, that understood an athlete's mentality and desire to be active."

Assisting in Summers' care are Dr. George Russell, orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Keith Knopes, anesthesiologist, and Dr. Matt Quin, cardiologist. Summers said the ability to see all the physicians during the same visit was a motivating factor for her coming to the Medical Center.

Creswell said the Medical Center has the potential to provide health services to some of the best athletes in the country.

"There are some people who have health problems that are looking for somebody to take care of them," he said. "I am planning to organize to get a more formal niche going here to take care of these patients."