When asked why he chose to come to Driscoll Children’s Hospital and lead the hospital’s cardiac unit, Ross Ungerleider, MD, MBA, had a quick answer. “Everyone here is as passionate as I am about providing superlative care to the children of South Texas,” he said.
Prior to joining Driscoll as medical director of the Heart Center, Dr. Ungerleider led several pediatric heart programs at academic medical centers across the U.S. He is recognized as a pioneer of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery techniques and holds advanced certification in Pediatric Cardiac Surgery from the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. He’s also ranked in the top one percent of pediatric cardiac surgeons in the nation.
Cardiothoracic surgeons Inder Mehta, MD, and Shyamasundar Balasubramanya, MD (Sam Bala), have recently joined Dr. Ungerleider at The Heart Center at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. Both bring extensive training and experience and also have advanced certification in Pediatric Cardiac Surgery from the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. The three are the only surgeons in South Texas who have achieved this distinction.
An exceptional multidisciplinary team
“We have the most extensive team of pediatric cardiology specialists and subspecialists in South Texas,” said Dr. Ungerleider. “The level of care we provide takes years of training and experience.”
The Heart Center team brings together diverse pediatric specialists, including cardiologists, anesthesiologists, perioperative care nurses, radiologists, interventionists, and perfusionists. These specialists collaborate to determine what is best for each patient. “Every child we see receives care that is uniquely designed for his or her specific needs,” said Dr. Ungerleider.
“Our large, multidisciplinary team enables us to provide comprehensive pediatric cardiac care,” said Dr. Mehta. “What we do here is as advanced as what’s done at the biggest and best-known children’s hospitals.”
Before any surgery or other kind of treatment is performed, the team holds a conference to discuss the case. “We look at every detail and get input from everybody,” said Dr. Mehta. “Depending on the particular patient, our group might include neurologists, pulmonologists, and general surgeons in addition to the cardiac specialists. One thing is always true: we’re all completely dedicated to pediatrics – and this this is the only place we practice so we’re here all the time.”
For each surgery, two or three surgeons are in the operating room. “We have a tremendous amount of skill and experience all in one place,” said Dr. Ungerleider. “Even with all of the excellent individuals who make up our heart team, the sum is greater than the parts.”
Special expertise in treating congenital heart disease
Although The Heart Center provides care for all pediatric heart conditions, the majority of cases involve congenital heart disease, the most common type of heart defect. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, congenital heart disease affects nearly one percent of all babies born in the United States.
Some defects are mild and need no treatment. A heart murmur with normal blood flow is one example. Others are complex, sometimes life-threatening, and may require treatment over a period of years, even into adulthood. Infants with critical congenital heart disease usually need surgery or other procedures during their first year of life.
Sometimes a congenital heart defect is diagnosed during the mother’s pregnancy. In these circumstances, the Heart Center’s team can be available to meet with expectant mothers and family members before their baby is born to help provide advice and guidance.
State-of-the-art techniques and technology
Driscoll’s Heart Center is equipped with the latest technology for complex procedures. This is particularly true for the operating room where the heart lung machines are equipped with miniaturized circuitry and cell saver technology to help minimize the need for blood transfusion during surgery. The Heart Center also has the ability to support the circulation of critically ill infants before or even after surgery using a portable heart lung machine (ECMO). This technology requires round-the-clock supervision by a dedicated team of perfusionists (who run the machines), on-site (round-the-clock) intensive care doctors expert in managing ECMO and nurses familiar with caring for patients who need this level of support.
Critical cardiac care in action
The story of a recent patient in The Heart Center illustrates the complex care Driscoll provides. Mateo (not his real name) was transported from the Rio Grande Valley to the hospital soon after birth.
Mateo had two large holes between the pumping chambers of his heart that led to excessive blood flow through his lungs making it difficult for him to breathe (a condition called “heart failure”). On top of this, he also had a severe viral pneumonia further hampering his breathing. He received expert management of his heart failure and pneumonia by the cardiologists and nurses and was finally stabilized to where surgery was possible. First, a member of the cardiology team (Dr. Muhammad Khan) was able to close a large hole at the base of Mateo’s heart using a device that was deployed in the cath lab. This device was able to close the defect low in Mateo’s heart which was in an area that is difficult to reach surgically. The surgical team then took Mateo to the operating room where he had the other large hole between his pumping chambers closed surgically. During this time, he received careful and precise management by the dedicated cardiac anesthesiologists. He then returned to the intensive care unit where the team of specialists helped him recover. He is now home with a repaired heart and an excellent outcome from surgery for a life-threatening illness. His case exemplifies how the entire team worked together to provide Mateo with specialized care.
Another case of a baby from the Rio Grande Valley underscores how the surgical team emphasizes complete one-stage repair for complex heart defects. “Sergio (not his real name) was diagnosed shortly after birth with transposition of great vessels (aorta and pulmonary arteries reversed), ventricular septal defect (hole between the two pumping chambers of the heart) and aortic coarctation (severe narrowing of the aorta),” said Dr. Balasubramanya. “It was a very complex case. In many centers, Sergio would receive several separate operations, often over the course of many months. However, we were able to repair all of his heart defects in one surgery, which lasted about six hours.”
“We see a wide range of complexity in The Heart Center,” said Dr. Balasubramanya. “Many cases are very intricate. Treating these children takes many specialists working together to decide what treatment will be best. The care is truly exemplary.”
Teamwork and leadership in action
The care a patient receives in The Heart Center is designed for the child’s unique needs. In developing a care plan, the cardiac team contributes their individual expertise in a collaborative effort to determine the right solutions for that child.
“I’ve spent the last 20 years studying what makes successful teams,” said Dr. Ungerleider. “We foster a team culture here in which all members use their skills to the utmost. These are the marks of what I call a resonant – or high-performing – team. Resonant teams end up providing better care at every level.”
Dr. Ungerleider has an MBA (where he was recognized by his peers as their “leader of the year”) and he is also certified as a leadership coach by the International Coach Federation. He is widely published on medical leadership, teamwork and conflict resolution, in addition to his hundreds of published articles on surgical techniques. His approach emphasizes not just protocols and technical capabilities but also relationships.
“We put heart into The Heart Center in more ways than one,” he said. “We care for each other – and ourselves – as well as our patients and their families. What we did the week following Hurricane Harvey is an example. We postponed elective surgeries to give our staff time to re-center themselves amid the extra stressful situation. This allowed each of us on the team to recover so that we could focus our full attention to the patients who needed the very best from all of us.”
“Our operating room team is the best I’ve ever worked with in my 32 years as a pediatric cardiac surgeon,” said Dr. Ungerleider. “It’s a joy to work with them.”
Dr. Mehta addressed a misconception about pediatric heart care. “Many people think the kind of care we provide can be done at any hospital,” he said, “but comprehensive pediatric cardiac care can be provided only in a team manner, and often only in a highly specialized center. That’s what we now have here at Driscoll.”
Care with compassion
Driscoll is prized not only for its advanced heart care; parents also value the strong support they receive when they have a child in the hospital. That support starts with the child’s heart team, whose members are specialists in compassion as well as in cardiac care.
Driscoll’s cardiac team understands that families can be overwhelmed when a child is diagnosed with a critical heart condition. Dedicated members of the team spend time with parents to provide personal comfort and reassurance. They take care to explain the child’s condition and what treatment is needed, and they keep parents informed about what to expect.
Especially important for families who live far from the hospital is the ability to be close to their child. Driscoll has 21 family guest rooms on-site for overnight stays and the nearby Ronald McDonald House has an additional 24 rooms.
Driscoll’s Family Connection Center has books, computers, and videos with information on children’s health conditions. Parents can also learn about hospital and community services from the social work staff.
The heartbeat of a vast geographic region
Located in Corpus Christi, The Heart Center at Driscoll Children’s Hospital provides cardiac care for children and youth living in 31 South Texas counties within a 33,000-square-mile region.
Children who travel to The Heart Center from locations throughout South Texas benefit greatly from Driscoll’s extensive Critical Care Transport Team. The air ambulance fleet includes two planes and two helicopters that transport patients from across South Texas, with specially trained nurses, paramedics, and respiratory therapists on board during the flight.
“Resonant” teamwork goes beyond the walls of the hospital. The Heart Center’s specialists share their expertise, offering the largest network of consulting services available to pediatric healthcare providers in South Texas. They maintain close contact with each patient’s physicians, from initial discussion through discharge and follow-up care.
“We are dedicated to healing the young hearts of South Texas,” said Dr. Ungerleider, “and our goal is always to get patients back to their families and their physicians as soon as possible.”
Shyamasundar Balasubramanya, MD (Sam Bala)
Pediatric and Congenital Heart Surgeon
Dr. Bala received his medical degree from Bangalore Medical College, India, and completed his residency in General Surgery at New York Presbyterian/Queens, N.Y.
His fellowships include Cardiothoracic Surgery at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, Ill.; Advanced Cardiac Surgery at Yale New Haven Hospital, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; Cardiac Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, Calif.; Congenital Cardiac Surgery at Lurie Children’s Hospital, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, Ill.; and Advanced Congenital Cardiac Surgery, Pediatric Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Boston, Mass.
Dr. Bala is board certified in Cardiothoracic Surgery and sub-specialty board certified in Congenital Cardiac Surgery by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery (ABTS).
Ross M. Ungerleider, MD, MBA
Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgeon
Driscoll Children’s Hospital Heart Center Medical Director
Chief of Cardiac Surgery
A nationally recognized leader in the field of Pediatric Heart Surgery, Dr. Ungerleider has more than 30 years of experience and has performed more than 6,000 congenital heart surgeries on children and young adults. He has been recognized as a Castle Connelly’s Top Doctors in America for the past 16 years, and is ranked by them as being in the top one percent of pediatric heart surgeons nationally.
Dr. Ungerleider received his medical degree at Rush Medical College in Chicago, and completed his residency in general & thoracic surgery at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., where he remained on the faculty for 15 years. He is a graduate of the Physician Executive MBA Program (PEMBA) at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he was elected physician leader of the year by his peers.
He has been board certified by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery continuously since 1989 and also carries their specialty certification in congenital (pediatric) cardiac surgery.
Inder D. Mehta, MD
Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgeon
Dr. Mehta completed his medical school education at University of Delhi in India. He completed his residency in General Surgery at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and residency in Cardiothoracic Surgery at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. Additionally, he did a Cardiothoracic Transplant Fellowship at Yale University School of Medicine.
Dr. Mehta was trained in Congenital Cardiovascular Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, and at Denver Children’s Hospital, University of Colorado, with an ACGME accredited fellowship. He also did a fellowship in Pediatric Mechanical Circulatory Support and Cardiac Transplantation at Denver Children’s Hospital.
He is board certified by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery in Adult Cardiothoracic Surgery and in Congenital Cardiovascular Surgery subspecialty.