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Dr. Jeff Watkins, interventional cardiologist at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, led a medical team that performed Bemidji's first cardiac catheterizations Thursday. He is pictured Friday afternoon in the cardiovascular lab at the hospital. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Cardiac catheterizations begin at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center; New cardiovascular center to open in 18-24 months

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Dr. Jeffrey Watkins believes Sanford Bemidji Medical Center could do 500 or more cardiac catheterizations a year.

That would be quite a feat for a hospital that, before this week, didn't do any.

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On Thursday, Watkins and his staff performed Bemidji's first three cardiac catheterizations, a procedure used to diagnose and treat cardiovascular conditions.

"They all went very well," Watkins said Friday. None of the three patients required intervention such as a cardiac stent.

The procedures are just the beginning. Watkins said the lab is booked next week and expects staff to conduct about 500 a year, about 10 a week.

Sanford Bemidji is seeking two additional cardiologists and has plans to build a new cardiovascular center to open in 18-24 months.

Before, heart patients most often were going to Fargo for treatment.

"There is a tremendous amount of heart disease in the area that you either had to travel for or has not been treated," Watkins said.

Local physicians and community members have campaigned for years for a local cardiology program.

"This is what we've been striving for," said Dr. Ted Will, a retired doctor and former North Country Health Services board member. "Absolutely this is very good news."

Will said the board began campaigning for these services more than six years ago.

"It creates an adjunct to the care already provided," he said.

Will estimated that 35-40 lives a year could be saved by having cardiac services available in Bemidji.

Cardiac services in Bemidji for now will be limited to cardiac catheterizations. They do not yet include acute heart attack care and the services are not currently available 24 hours seven days a week.

Doctors and nurses urge the public to still seek immediate care at the emergency room if a heart attack is suspected; if cardiac care is unavailable in Bemidji, the patient will be taken to Fargo for immediate assistance.

Dr. Craig Kouba spent several months in Bemidji in the summer of 2009 determining if there was a need for cardiac services in this city. He did, estimating that perhaps 50-60 people a year would benefit from angiograms at the Bemidji hospital.

"He came away agreeing that there definitely was a need," Watkins said.

But Watkins thinks his estimate was very low. He expects medical centers in Thief River Falls, Baudette, Bagley and Walker to refer patients to Bemidji, rather than Fargo, once the department is running at full staff.

Working in the cardiac program are Watkins, who joined the hospital in January; Barry Royce, R.N, the cardiovascular director; Curtis Crist, cardiovascular invasive specialist, the lab supervisor; Noah White, R.N., a lab nurse; and Anna Niemela, C.I.S.

Watkins, before this week, had been holding routine checkups here in Bemidji, and procedures were needed, he would accompany his patients to Fargo, both to maintain his skills and to provide doctor stability for the patient.

Meanwhile, a team composed of more than 30 people from imaging, surgical and cardiology departments was meeting weekly toward making Bemidji's cardiac program a reality.

"Truly, a whole hospital-wide effort has taken place," Watkins said.

Physicians and administrators in both Fargo and Sioux Falls - Sanford Health's other two hubs - have been extremely supportive, Watkins said. As the Sioux Falls cardiac department got new equipment, Bemidji benefitted from the existing equipment.

"It is a very complicated process to make this happen," Watkins said. "This was a coordinated effort."

The cardiac catheterization lab was built upon the existing vascular lab, which is where Dr. Kevin Schoepel has been doing vascular procedures. The existing equipment required some equipment and software upgrades. The vascular lab has become the vascular-cardiac lab, with each specialty having access to it two days a week.

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