Excela launches expanded cardiology services with new team of specialists | TribLIVE.com
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Deb Erdley

When nearly 100 patients left Excela Health System last year to undergo minimally invasive heart valve replacements not offered through its Westmoreland County hospitals, officials knew it was time to stop the bleeding.

It is now “game on,” Excela acting CEO John Sphon said after the recruitment of four specialists for patients seeking advanced cardiac care close to home. Excela has hospitals in Greensburg, Latrobe and Mt. Pleasant, as well as a variety of associated facilities throughout the county.

With the addition of a pair of cardio-thoracic surgeons and two interventional cardiologists, Excela will offer an expanded menu of cardiac services, Sphon said. These range from increasingly complex open heart surgeries to transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR, a minimally invasive procedure.

Leading Excela’s team of 17 cardiologists is Dr. Michael Culig, a cardio-thoracic surgeon who has practiced advanced cardiac surgery at hospitals across Pittsburgh and launched cardiac surgery programs in Monroeville, Dubois and Lviv, Ukraine.

In his blood

Culig, 63, recently talked to the Tribune-Review about his new post, moments after completing a 3½-hour aortic valve replacement and bypass surgery at Excela Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg.

The son of a steelworker who toiled 25 years at the Carrie Furnace in the industrial Mon Valley, Culig took over the helm of the cardiology program at Excela six weeks ago. He is proud of his roots in the Mon Valley, where he graduated as valedictorian at McKeesport High School and followed his older brother to Harvard University for undergraduate studies and medical school.

There was no question he’d return to Western Pennsylvania after his studies near Boston.

“It’s in my blood,” he said. “My father was secretary of the union local at the mill. … My grandfather worked there, too. He was a Croatian immigrant. And my mom’s family was from Trafford.

“You never forget where you came from.”

The surgeon said he likes Excela’s open-door policy, which allows his team to accept patients from all insurers.

“When I was at [Allegheny Health Network], I couldn’t take patients with UPMC insurance. Here, I can do everyone,” he said.

He’s pleased with the team Excela has assembled.

Culig will be joined this month by Dr. Hiroyuko Tsukui, who was chief of cardiovascular surgery at the Hokkaido Cardiovascular Hospital in Sapporo, Japan. He is completing a lecture series there before returning to the United States.

Tsukui completed a research fellowship at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh as well as surgical fellowships in artificial heart and thoracic transplantation and advanced adult cardiac surgery at UPMC. A local cardiologist who stayed in touch with Tsukui helped recruit him back to Western Pennsylvania and Excela.

Sphon said the new team will be able to serve many patients who previously had to go to Pittsburgh for complex procedures.

Rounding out the new Excela team are interventional cardiologists Dr. Vinod Kudagi, who lists TAVR among his specialties, and Dr. David Lee, whose specializations include percutaneous coronary interventions and minimally invasive therapies for pulmonary embolisms.

‘Looking forward’

The additions to Excela’s cardiology services come as the dust continues to settle from questions that came to the forefront eight years ago. Excela officials disclosed they believed two cardiologists had performed scores of unnecessary procedures to insert wire mesh stents into patients’ arteries.

Those revelations triggered a series of lawsuits that have been working their way through the courts for years.

Excela officials view that as the distant past, Sphon said.

“We’re looking forward, and the way we’re doing it is by bringing folks like this in. These are necessary services our community deserves,” Sphon said.

Excela trustees tapped Sphon, a longtime executive in the health system, as interim leader last spring, following the abrupt resignations of longtime CEO Bob Rogalski and COO Mike Busch.

The Westmoreland County-based health system has struggled financially in recent years as the health care landscape underwent repeated upheavals. Sphon said Excela is poised to return to profitability in 2020.

How far into the future he will lead Excela remains unclear.

The Excela board, which launched a national search for a CEO last summer, previously said trustees hoped to fill the vacancy by the end of the year.

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