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Published in CenterView on March 17, 2014
Dr. Mike McMullan
Dr. Mike McMullan

McMullan returns to care for adult congenital heart patients

By Gary Pettus

Dr. Michael R. McMullan’s sister was born too soon to grow old.

Dr. Cristen Waespe, left, an internal medicine fellow, and Terica Jackson, a fourth-year medical student, confer with Dr. Michael McMullan.
Dr. Cristen Waespe, left, an internal medicine fellow, and Terica Jackson, a fourth-year medical student, confer with Dr. Michael McMullan.

His family lost her about 35 years ago, long before today’s advances in care for adults who, like her, were born with heart disease.

But as the new director of UMMC’s adult congenital heart program, McMullan and a team of additional specialists are helping extend the lives of many in this under-treated population.

“I have a real feeling for patients with this,” McMullan said. “My sister might have been saved today.”

Because they often develop more problems as they grow older, it’s important for adults with congenital heart disease to receive regular, specialized care – the kind available through UMMC’s adult congenital heart program with its team of cardiologists, surgeons, electrophysiologists, heart failure/transplant experts and others.

They are serving a growing population: More than 1.3 million adults in the U.S. have congenital heart disease. They outnumber children with the condition.

Yet, nationwide, less than 10 percent of adults who need it receive this type of care, the Adult Congenital Heart Association reports.

An estimate of the number of Mississippians with congenital heart disease isn’t available yet, but whatever it turns out to be, “our goal is to take care of the state of Mississippi,” said McMullan, a Decatur native and alumnus of the University of Southern Mississippi and the School of Medicine at UMMC.

“We are in a position to do it. UMMC is the only place in the state with pediatric cardiology and congenital heart surgery. No one else has the resources to take care of these patients.”

These patients came into the world with the most common birth defect of all, he said.

“Because surgical techniques and post-op care have improved, they are living longer.”

The coordinated care that is extending the lives of many at UMMC, he said, depends in great part on the work of Dr. Mary Taylor, chief of pediatric critical care and division director of pediatric cardiology and of pediatrics critical care; Dr. Makram Ebeid, pediatric interventional cardiologist; and Dr. Jorge Salazar, leader of the congenital cardiac surgical program.

Dr. Michael McMullan with patient Deamber Johnson.
Dr. Michael McMullan with patient Deamber Johnson.

In August, Salazar performed surgery on one of McMullan’s patients, Deamber Johnson, 18, of Jackson, to remove a membrane causing leakage and a narrowing of the aortic valve.

“I’m not short of breath anymore,” said Johnson, who is pregnant. “It helped me so much.”

The surgery also removed the necessity of replacing the valve, McMullan said. “Dr. Salazar may have saved her life – and the life of her baby.”

It was Salazar who recruited McMullan to UMMC.

“Adult congenital heart patients are among the most challenging patients we care for, and now these patients can receive the very best treatment right here at home in Mississippi,” said Salazar, chief, division of cardiothoracic surgery and co-director, Children’s Heart Center and University Heart.

“We are thrilled to have a superstar like Dr. McMullan to lead our program.”

McMullan, who did his specialty training at UMMC and Duke University Medical Center, rejoins UMMC after a seven-year absence.

“One of the things I really love about this is being back in a teaching environment,” said McMullan, a professor of medicine who’s also the son of two teachers – both his parents taught at East Central Community College in his hometown.

He has returned to the Medical Center from the Jackson Heart Clinic, P.A., where he had been a partner since 2007. After originally joining UMMC in 1998 as an assistant professor of medicine, he started the Adult Congenital and Valvular Heart Disease Clinic.

Over the years, he served as clinical chief of cardiology, director of the Cardiology Fellowship Training Program and, finally, as clinical chief of the Division of Cardiology, 2005-2007.

Today, McMullan’s supreme goal is to “incorporate all of the congenital patients in our state under one roof,” he said.

“I believe that is clearly in the best interests of our patients, and that is what ultimately drives me.

“I’d like to go around the state and talk to every cardiologist and do whatever it takes to allow us to participate in their patients’ care – not take away their patients, but make sure they see us for follow-up as needed, particularly the highly complex cases.”

A lot of them can’t travel to Jackson, he said. So he’s willing to set up clinics around the state. “And go to them, if that’s what it takes.”

Many are still seeing their pediatricians, the physicians who know their medical history. “Recently, we had a 30-year-old man with a heart attack who was sent to the PICU,” McMullan said. “He woke up in a bed that was next to a 2-year-old.

“Because adults get adult diseases, there needs to be a transition – from pediatric cardiologist care to adult cardiologist care.

“I believe part of my role here is to ensure that transition.”

It was during medical school that McMullan became completely sold on the idea of specializing in the treatment of adult heart disease, inspired partly by the teaching chops of Dr. Patrick Lehan, one of the state’s pre-eminent cardiologists.

Another inspiration was closer to home. “Heart disease runs in my family,” McMullan said.

McMullan, left, and Lynch
McMullan, left, and Lynch

Like many congenital heart patients, his sister had Down syndrome, which causes learning disabilities. “She passed away at a young age.”

One of the patients he sees today is a young woman, Mary Lynch, the daughter of Dr. Robert Lynch, former CEO of Tulane Medical Center, and Dr. Cynthia Lynch, a UMMC pathologist.

“Having everyone working together as a team and seeing her over time is very important for Mary’s care because she can develop more problems,” Dr. Robert Lynch said. “That’s why we keep coming here.

“And I have great faith in her doctor.”

Mary, 30, has Williams syndrome, an in-born condition marked by, among other things, heart disease and learning disabilities.

During a checkup earlier this month, McMullan spent time with her, joking and laughing until the end, when he gave her a hug or two.

She is, of course, one of his favorites.