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At the heart of it: Sanford Bemidji now offering 24/7 cardiac care

MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER The staff of the Sanford Bemidji Medical Center's Heart & Vascular Center includes, front row, from left, Drs. James Dewar, Kris Anderson, Nur Jameel and Jeffrey Watkins.

BEMIDJI -- Now offering 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week cardiac care, Sanford Bemidji Medical Center's Heart & Vascular Center has physicians routinely providing emergent cardiac care.

"Lives have been saved," said Dr. Jeffrey Watkins.

Watkins is the hospital's first interventional cardiologist, hired in 2011 to expand upon the cardiac services long provided by Dr. Kris Anderson, a non-invasive cardiologist.

On Oct. 20, 2011, Watkins and his staff performed the first-ever cardiac catheterization at Sanford Bemidji. The department continued to expand, hiring another interventional cardiologist, Dr. Nur Jameel, in 2012.

Now, a third interventional cardiologist has been hired: Dr. James Dewar joined the staff in July.

Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, which opened its new Heart & Vascular Center at the beginning of this year, officially began offering 24/7 cardiac care in April, and with three interventional cardiologists now on staff, they are able to work a schedule that keeps all three relatively fresh and rested.

"We're pretty busy," Dewar said. "We typically have folks having heart attacks every day."

Generally, medical staff work toward achieving a "90-minute door-to-balloon time," meaning it would be 90 minutes (or less) from the time of a heart attack to time interventional services are provided.

Thus, the Bemidji hospital has been taking in patients arriving from area communities, such as Park Rapids, Baudette and Thief River Falls.

"We've had a couple of folks that would not have survived a flight to Fargo or Minneapolis," Dewar said. "Having these resources available in this area is extremely important."

The expansion of cardiac services led the hospital to rearrange its existing space last year, creating a new 6,450-square-foot Heart & Vascular Center in the interior of the hospital.

Watkins said he understands patients who feel more comfortable receiving care at a larger, longer-established department, but he believes Bemidji's heart and vascular staff and services rival those in larger metropolitan cities, including Fargo and Minneapolis.


The new center features a dedicated catheterization lab, six beds for prep and recovery, five clinic exam rooms, two diagnostic testing rooms, a diagnostic reading room, a patient-education suite, workstations for physicians and a registration and scheduling lobby.

"Sanford has made a financial commitment to really get state-of-the-art equipment," Dewar said, noting several procedures that can be performed in-house and with the least amount of contrast possible.

"We're also doing cases via radial approach," he continued, discussing highlights. "One of the advantages of doing radial approach is there is less risk of bleeding complications, and patients, especially those with back pain, can get up and move around right away."

Physicians agreed further expansion is inevitable as more patients and facilities hear about and rely on Bemidji for cardiac services.

"More growth will be coming," Watkins said. "We're now getting direct referrals from those outside our area for heart attack care, patients who would otherwise have bypassed Bemidji all together."

Dewar said he could see the number of cardiologists doubling at some point and more mid-level providers, such as nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, as well as more specialized staff, such as an electrophysiologist, cardiothoracic surgeon, and additional vascular surgeons.

"It takes time," he said.

Sanford Bemidji had not done a lot of advertising to spread the word of its 24/7 cardiac services, waiting to allow its staff to gradually become accustomed to each other and the facility. Now, with educational outreach planned, staff said they will develop research to illustrate the needs of increased cardiac services for the region.

"We're serving a population in the area of probably about 100,000 and there's three of us," Dewar said.

But with the potential of patient and staff growth comes the likelihood of physical expansion, as well.

"We have an excellent space that meets our space needs for the time being," Dewar said. "As we continue to grow and expand cardiac rehab and cardiac services, all these different things that we want to bring into northern Minnesota, we are going to need more room."

Any new structure or expansion would be several years away, staff noted. But improvements always are being discussed. A new telemetry floor -- a cardiac step-down unit -- for example is planned to open later this fall.