BEMIDJI - Sanford Bemidji Medical Center on Thursday detailed the hospital's plans for an advanced cardiology program, which will include a dedicated, 24-hour cardiology suite.

"The future for us is very, very promising," said Paul Hanson, the president of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, as he addressed about 50 people gathered at the Sanford Center for a Lunch & Learn program hosted by the Sanford Health Foundation of Northern Minnesota.

The program unveiled plans for a Bemidji cardiology program and also introduced the community to the da Vinci robotic surgery system, a minimally invasive surgical system that is coming to Bemidji.

"We have a lot of prep work to get ready for a, a lot of staff to prepare," Hanson said.

The da Vinci, a roughly $2.4 million system, has been ordered and is expected to be operational late this year or early 2013.

"I find this extremely exciting," said Bob Fitzgerald, chairman of the Sanford Health Foundation of Northern Minnesota.

"Both pieces are really critical parts for what we're doing," said Penny Echternach, the executive director of the Foundation.


'It's a great service'

The addition of cardiac services at Sanford Bemidji began in 2011 with the hiring of Dr. Jeff Watkins, an interventional cardiologist. He performed the hospital's fist diagnostic catheterization on Oct. 20 and its first angioplasty one week later.

On June 7, the hospital celebrated its 200th cardiac procedure performed in Bemidji.

But that is just the beginning, said Barry Royce, the director of cardiovascular services.

Dr. Mohammad Jameel, an interventional cardiologist from the University of Minnesota, will be joining Watkins this fall, right before the hospital's new cardiology center opens to offer 24-hour, seven-day-a-week cardiology services.

"Virtually all your cardiology needs will be met," Royce said.

In spring 2013, a third interventional cardiologist will join the team as Dr. James Dewar comes to Bemidji from Arizona.

John Ostrem, a former patient who underwent cardiac services at Sanford Bemidji, spoke at the luncheon, detailing his experience. He had been having some heart issues when Watkins suggested that he undergo an angiogram.

Ostrem said he had just read in the newspaper that Sanford Bemidji had just begun performing such procedures about a week earlier, and Watkins seemed to know what he was doing, so he agreed to the procedure.

He went in the next morning. The procedure revealed 85 percent blockage, so three stints were put in place. As a precaution, he stayed overnight in the intensive care unit before returning home.

"I'm here to tell you it's a great service, and I totally support the expansion of that service here at Sanford in Bemidji," Ostrem said.

Being able to remain in Bemidji and not have to travel to Fargo, N.D, or Minneapolis for treatment is a great benefit to the community, he said.

The cardiology unit will be constructed within existing space at the hospital. Hanson said Sanford debated constructing a new facility, but Royce offered a plan that worked within available space.

"That is using our minds, not our backs, and providing a service much faster to the community than if we had to build a new space," Hanson said.

Royce presented graphics that showed the annual death rate from 2000-2006 of those aged 35 and up from heart disease by county. Beltrami had a rate of 343-359 per 100,000 people while neighboring counties had rates of 361-395 per 100,000 people.

A ring indicated the area that could be served by Sanford Bemidji within 90 minutes, meaning that a helicopter could leave the hospital, retrieve that patient, get him or her back to the hospital, into surgery for an angiogram and have an artery opened, all within 90 minutes. A second circle indicated a two-hour radius.

"Those are the people that we need to bring in quickly," Royce said.

da Vinci:

'This is the next generation'

Potential additions to the Sanford Bemidji doctoral team already are trained on how to operate the da Vinci robotic surgery team.

Hanson said two candidates, one an ob/gyn and the other a urologist, already have the skills but need the equipment to be available.

"They just have an expectation that you will have a robot in your community," he said.

The da Vinci system utilizes fewer and smaller incisions, which is less invasive to patients and equates to quicker recovery periods. The surgeons still perform the surgeries, but they do so from a remote control station, watching a three-dimensional screen while controlling up to four robotic arms. The robot can adjust human hand movement in smaller increments, allowing for greater precision.

"For a community hospital that is extremely passionate about meeting patient demands for minimally invasive surgery and providing the same level of care for a major market, how can you do that?" said Paul Kahlert, area sales manager of da Vinci Surgery. "You can do that with da Vinci."

Sanford Bemidji has ordered one of the da Vinci systems. It is expected to be operational late this year or early next year in three specialties: general surgery, urology and gynecology.

Dr. Raymond Majkrzak, ob/gyn, explained that the da Vinci can improve surgeons' skills because the system is very precise. It also will make suturing easier in cavities that are difficult to work in.

"It's a very complex, well-engineered piece of machinery," he said.

Majkrzak said he performs about 100 various laparoscopic procedures a year and has removed cysts the size of basketballs.

"You can do something pretty amazing things, but this is the next generation that we expect to train on," he said.