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April 28, 2013

Memorial adds new heart surgeon

— Memorial Medical Center’s newest heart surgeon has been watching the Conemaugh Health System’s award-winning program from afar.

Dr. Antonio Sortino met Memorial’s heart program co-founder, Dr. Rajsekhar Devineni, when they were both working in Wilkes-Barre General Hospital in the late 1980s.

Devineni was an attending physician in the Wilkes-Barre cardiac surgery program and Sortino was completing fellowship training under his supervision.

“We met during my training,” Sortino, 57, said at Memorial’s heart surgery unit.

“We became good friends and have remained close.”

Devineni went on to join Drs. Jack Kolff and Robert G. Stenberg and launch Johnstown’s heart program in 1990.

After completing his residency at Yale University School of Medicine, with a rotation at Oxford Heart Center in Britain, Sortino joined Three Rivers Cardiac Institute in 1991. Through the institute, Sortino was instrumental in launching Washington Hospital’s heart program in Washington County. For the last 13 years he has been the lead heart surgeon there, and also served as chief of cardiovascular surgery.

“I started the program from scratch and really put it on the map,” Sortino said.  

But Sortino said he advanced that program as far as he could in the limited environment of the Washington system.

“It was time to change,” Sortino said. “With all the new advances in the field, I looked for a new opportunity.”

About that time, he heard Devineni was retiring from Memorial. He called his old friend to see if his new opportunity might be waiting in Johnstown.

“He said, ‘It’s funny. I was just going to call you,’ ” Sortino recalled. “I came here and met Dr. (Savas) Mavridis, and we just clicked.”

Mavridis joined Memorial’s program in its growth stage and was half of the two-doctor heart surgery team with Devineni since Kolff’s 2005 retirement.

Devineni’s retirement earlier this year left Mavridis as the Johnstown program’s only heart surgeon – a role that is all too familiar to Sortino.

“I was essentially a sole practitioner in Washington,” Sortino said, explaining that the Three-Rivers group covers several hospitals, but his partners provided backup and filled in for him when he was on vacation.

“Having a partner – somebody to share the call schedule – is very appealing,” Sortino said.

He also looks forward to being part of Conemaugh’s multifaceted heart team, which includes about a dozen cardiologists and a cadre of experienced nurses,  technologists and physician assistants.

“I had no doubt this organization had a team of people here that is first class,” Sortino said.

“It was very easy to get accustomed to the program. Nurses really go out of their way to get used to my ways.”

Board certified in thoracic surgery, Sortino chose the specialty after his own father died of a heart attack at age 49.

He brings a new technique called the maze procedure to treat abnormal heartbeats with surgery. During this procedure, small incisions are made in the heart tissue to create scar tissue that interrupts electrical patterns responsible for arrhythmia. The surgeon creates a maze of barriers and blind alleys within the heart so the electrical impulse has only one route to travel.

Currently the maze procedure is primarily done in conjunction with other open-heart procedures, Sortino said.

The region is fortunate to have a heart surgeon with Sortino’s acclaim, Mavridis said.

“Dr. Devineni retiring is a great loss for our community, but we are very fortunate to have found a cardiothoracic surgeon of such great caliber as Dr. Sortino,” Mavridis said.

“I am very excited and pleased to work with someone as well trained and experienced as Dr. Sortino.”

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