Ever-increasing need for heart care beckons Houma physician to build state-of-the-art facility

Norita Price Trahan
August 12, 2008
Beulah "Bebe" M. Freeman
August 14, 2008
Norita Price Trahan
August 12, 2008
Beulah "Bebe" M. Freeman
August 14, 2008

When Dr. Craig Walker returned to Houma in 1983, he had a humble vision for helping improve heart care.

“My whole goal was to provide state-of-the-art care locally,” he said. “I had dreamed of one day having two or three partners, a maximum of four cardiologists, hopefully one day a surgeon. We blew by that dream really quick.”

As founder and president, Walker has watched the Cardiovascular Institute of the South (CIS) grow from a one-man practice into one of America’s most respected medical clinics with 37 physicians and 500 employees in 10 south Louisiana cities.

As CIS prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary on Friday, the institute has become a world leader in heart and vascular medicine.

CIS has made major contributions to developing non-surgical treatments of peripheral vascular disease. Its physicians have become internationally acclaimed researchers and clinical investigators.

Its reputation has drawn patients from every state and 40 different countries to seek treatment at its facilities.

“I didn’t dream CIS would become what it is today,” Walker said. “We have published thousands of articles, written numerous book chapters. Our group sits on the editorial boards of almost every major journal. We speak at every big meeting around the world.”

For all the awards and recognition CIS and its individual physicians have earned in the past quarter-century, heart disease remains the number one cause of death in south Louisiana and in America.

“We’re catching it early, but there are just so many people in south Louisiana with heart disease,” said Patsy Canuteson, a licensed practical nurse at CIS for over 22 years. “It’s amazing. We see a ton of patients with heart disease. It’s overwhelming.”

Besides wanting to be near family and friends, Walker, an interventional cardiologist, was swayed to return to Houma by its lack of specialized cardiovascular care.

“This area had one of the highest death rates from cardiovascular disease in the world at the time I moved back,” he said. “We were at the old Terrebonne General. We had no CCU, no cardio catheterization laboratory, no nurses trained to deal with cardiac patients. So the whole idea behind leaving Boston to return to Houma was to make a difference in my hometown.”

On Aug. 15, 1983, in a 1,200-square-foot blue house on the corner of Liberty and Wood streets, Walker opened Houma Heart Clinic. That date had another special meaning for him.

“That was my daughter Ashley’s first birthday,” he admitted. “I’m terrible with dates, but I would never forget my daughter’s birthday.”

From seeing only one patient that first day, the practice picked up enough within a year to garner a partner, Dr. William Ladd.

As the practice grew and acquired more partners, they decided to open a clinic in Thibodaux in 1986.

The clinic really hit its growth spurt in 1987. That’s when the Houma Heart Clinic was renamed the Cardiovascular Institute of the South to more accurately encompass the scope of their work.

“We were treating a lot more than just the heart,” Walker said. “We were treating the entire vascular system, be it any artery or any vein. We wanted a more inclusive name that wouldn’t limit us from expansion in the future.”

CIS physicians also began researching non-surgical treatment of peripheral vascular disease, collator for all diseases caused by the obstruction of large peripheral arteries.

Today, CIS is the largest interventional peripheral vascular program in the world.

Around that time CIS brought in Dr. Tommy Fudge and developed a cardiovascular surgical program.

“His work was cited in the Wall Street Journal and Hospital Magazine as having the lowest mortality rate in the entire United States,” said Walker. “Hospital Magazine said Cardiovascular Institute of the South had the most comprehensive cardiovascular program they had seen and we were still a very small program at that time.”

Dr. Walker has followed two pieces of advice that has helped CIS become the world-class cardiovascular care provider it is today.

“The first is to always write down your goals,” he said. “We wrote what we wanted to accomplish, what were our goals in terms of medical care. One major component of that was to always be on the leading edge.”

CIS has been at the forefront of cutting-edge research historically done by bigger medical centers and much medical advancements that have become standard heart care today.

“No matter how good you are at making a diagnosis, if you don’t have the tools to treat something, it doesn’t help,” Walker explained. “So we wanted access to those tools.”

The second piece of advice was to keep an open mind. Despite all their scientific training, it is easy for physicians to stop seeing things objectively, Walker said.

“I think it’s very important to divorce yourself from that,” he said. “The only way things can improve is through change. If you’re not going to change you are not going to get results.”

One of the changes he has made is streamlining the testing process so patients get all their results that same day.

“We’ve carried that out through the years,” Canuteson noted. “As we progress and give more tests (EKGs, treadmills, nuclear profusion tests, echocardiograms, etc.), we can’t give them all in the same day, but the majority of testing does get done the same day.”

One of CIS’s greatest advantages is that most of the core group of physicians who began with the practice is still there.

That continuity and wealth of medical knowledge have been key to helping residents in south Louisiana, especially in Houma, prolong their lives against the ravages of heart disease.

“In the very last census we have access to, this Medicare region has one of the lowest death rates from heart disease in the country,” Walker said. “We know a lot more about this disease process then when we started 25 years ago, but we don’t have it licked yet. The good thing is we have never quit trying to improve, and I don’t think we ever will.”

Patients from all over the world have come to the 46,000 square-foot Cardiovascular Institute of the South complex, seeking treatment for heart and vascular diseases. * Photo courtesy of CARDIOVASCULAR INSTITUTE OF THE SOUTH