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VCU Health cardio-oncology program founder Michael Lee Hess dies at 76

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Michael Lee Hess, M.D., was a small man, but he arrived in rooms with a booming voice and a large presence.

“He was a bit of a whirling dervish. A force of nature,” said Maureen Flattery, a nurse practitioner in cardiac transplantation who worked with Hess for more than 20 years.

Hess’ energy drove him to great accomplishments — from his innovative work with the pioneering cardiothoracic surgeon Richard Lower, M.D., in the early days of cardiac transplantation and his creation of the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation, to his coming out of retirement in 2013 to start the cardio-oncology program at VCU Health.

Hess, who was born in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, passed away in Richmond on April 13 after a nine-year battle with cancer.

Greg Hundley, M.D., director of VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, remembers Hess from his years as a student in VCU School of Medicine. “He was on the faculty then, and he was an internationally respected leader in cardiovascular physiology and also formative in many of the medical management issues related to cardiac transplantation. He was a unique blend of friendliness and exceptional expertise in his craft,” Hundley said.

“He was a true giant in the field of medicine. Very few people accomplish in their career what he did in the first 20 years of his career,” said Kenneth Ellenbogen, M.D., chair of the Division of Cardiology in VCU’s School of Medicine. “He was a completely unselfish teacher, and an amazing physician and human being. So many people owe their lives to him. He was responsible for the field of heart transplantation getting off the ground. I don’t know how we could all ever thank him for everything he did for this field.”

Born in a small coal-mining town in central Pennsylvania, Hess attended St. Francis College then the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where he met his wife, Andrea Hastillo, M.D., who, like him, later became a VCU Health cardiologist. Hess completed his fellowship in cardiology at VCU. After serving two years in the U.S. Navy as a clinical cardiologist, he joined the VCU faculty in 1975, becoming a professor of both cardiology and physiology. He published more than 200 research papers.

Michael Hess, M.D.
Michael Hess, M.D.

Hess received many honors over the years, including VCU’s University Award of Excellence as well as its Distinguished Clinician, Distinguished Scholarship and Distinguished Clinical Care awards and the Outstanding Teacher Award seven times. Colleagues describe him as a great storyteller who loved to share a laugh with others.

Hess’ early work included attending to the post-transplant needs of Lower’s patients. “It started as a hallway conversation in the West Hospital,” recalled Hess in Pauley’s The Beat newsletter. It was a Friday when he introduced himself to Lower, a pioneering cardiac transplant surgeon, and expressed an interest in caring for his post-transplant patients. Hess said, “He looked me square in the eye, and he said, ‘Well, I have two new patients coming into the clinical research unit Monday morning. Go to work on them.’”

In an interview, Hess recalled spending evenings on Lower’s porch with esteemed colleagues such as H.M. Lee, M.D., “trying to pound out the problems that we were having at the time.” The problems in the 1970s and 1980s included high mortality rates for transplant patients. “The world of cardiac transplantation was so young that there were no rules, no guidelines,” Hess said.

The desire to share information with others in the fledgling transplant field led Hess, in 1981, to create the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation. Claiming “I had no one to talk to,” he created the society at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association — even bringing in a Canadian colleague passing by the room to make the first meeting truly international. Hess served as the first president of the society.

Today, the organization is the world’s leading scientific society of transplantation physicians and surgeons and operates the International Registry for Heart and Lung Transplantation, the only database of its kind in the world.

“He was an excellent educator and clinician. His first concern was the patient and his second was to teach people how to take care of patients,” Flattery said. “His patients loved him. He always amazed me, because he’d walk into a patient’s room and say, `So how’s that grandson of yours doing? Is this the year he’s graduating?’” He instructed Flattery to remember something unique about each patient, “to show that you’ve been listening to them.”

One of Hess’ patients was George Crutchfield, former director of VCU’s School of Mass Communications, whom Hess treated for 34 years. Before Crutchfield died, his wife, Frances Broaddus-Crutchfield, hosted a luncheon to celebrate their many years together as doctor and patient. She later established the George and Frances Broaddus Crutchfield Lecture Series to provide for continuing education in heart failure medicine.

Hess served as a mentor for countless students, including Keyur Shah, M.D., an associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine in the Division of Cardiology.

“He would spend any free moment he had to either give lectures to nurses about EKGs or sit down with students to discuss the pathophysiology of heart failure,” Shah said, describing Hess’ passion for teaching. “He’d always be the first to volunteer to give lectures — really just enjoyed the academic environment.

“He was a great educator, and he taught students from lessons he’d learned over his life and career.”

Hess was committed to his wife and daughter, endocrinologist Samantha Hudson, M.D., and their extended family. In his spare time he enjoyed reading, spending time with his loved ones, and watching his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. He had a hard time leaving the medical profession.

“I think he retired three times,” Flattery said.

After one short-lived retirement, Hess returned to VCU Health to start Virginia’s first cardio-oncology program in 2013. He retired for good in 2017 but stayed engaged. In December 2017, the Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation published a special issue dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the first human heart transplant, with Hess co-authoring the first chapter.

Hess recently led a Grand Rounds presentation on the history of cardiac transplantation, receiving a standing ovation. On Dec. 8, 2018, the date of his and Hastillo’s 50th wedding anniversary, he traveled to VCU Medical Center for the unveiling of the Dr. Michael Hess Library in the West Hospital.

Along with his family, “medicine, his patients, his students were his life. He was fully committed to the field. VCU Health and heart failure were his passion from beginning to end,” Shah said. “He was very resilient. The fact that he came back and started a successful cardio-oncology program just speaks to not only his motivation but his passion to be involved in clinical medicine this late in his career.”

A version of this article by Sandra Shelley originally appeared in The Beat, a VCU Health Pauley Heart Center publication.