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Times of the Islands Magazine

Building Better Health Care - The Shipley Center promises healthy horizons for heart and lung patients

Jun 22, 2015 08:06AM ● By Cory Batelaan
The Shipley Center promises healthy horizons for heart and lung patients in Southwest Florida

By Kat Velez

It’s not often you hear of snowballing in Florida, but that’s exactly what led to the rapid inception of The Shipley Center for Cardiothoracic Surgery Innovation, Education & Research—the greatest revolutionary medical advancement to hit Southwest Florida.

Unknowingly, Dr. Paul DiGiorgi initially got the ball rolling in a hotel room one brisk October evening during a business trip to Washington, D.C., in 2014. He happened to be on the phone with members of the Lee Memorial Health System Foundation while jotting down ideas of what he envisioned for the future of cardiothoracic surgery.

DiGiorgi and three well-established colleagues, Randall Buss, M.D., George M. Comas, M.D, and Brian Hummel, M.D., recently joined Lee Physician Group after years of collaboration with the health system that has played a vital role in its award-winning cardiac program. The team has extensive experience, performing more than 800 heart surgeries and 400 lung surgeries a year.


The Shipley Center will also include a component of health education to help patients understand how to stay healthy and potentially avoid surgery.

Samira Beckwith is one of the 800 last year. “For nearly two years I experienced shortness of breath, chest pain,” says Beckwith. Yet the Fort Myers resident never slowed down. She is president and CEO of Hope Healthcare Services. In addition to growing the organization for more than 20 years to a point of national recognition for excellence, she has served on the boards of numerous national and state professional organizations and is the vice chair of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivors.

In her early 20s, Beckwith endured five surgeries, radiation and chemo to conquer cancer. “Treatment in the ’70s was much different than now. It was not well refined and targeted, so people who were treated often have additional problems later in life,” she explains. “My heart valve was seriously impaired and required surgery.”

Beckwith underwent transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) in October. “Because of my past treatment they were concerned about doing the procedure any other way,” she says.


DSC_0176-2TAVR is an alternative to open heart surgery that uses a catheter to access the heart through an artery. Until TAVR, patients ineligible for traditional open heart surgery had no effective, long-term treatment option and typically did not survive two years. The HealthPark cardiothoracic team is well known for their minimally invasive techniques, and were the first in Florida to perform TAVR outside of clinical trials.

Earning a number of distinctions, the surgeries, procedures and techniques they perform are extraordinary, and are the same done at larger institutions with comparable outcomes. Having such a highly regarded team of experts provide these services within our community spares families the added stress and expense of traveling to find this level of care.

“There was an interest from some of our patients to be philanthropically involved with us; and as I was coming up with a vision for what our department should be doing over the next 20 years, this whole center of innovation was born. I was basically on the phone with [the Foundation] and emailing back and forth from the hotel in between meetings, and it just grew from there,” DiGiorgi recalls of that October night in D.C.

DiGiorgi believes plans are moving forward so rapidly because everyone is hungry for an idea like this. “That’s what I think is going to guarantee the success of it, not my enthusiasm per se, but the fact that everyone around me has the same enthusiasm.”

That enthusiasm, fueled by mutual interests in education and medical research, has garnered generous support from The Shipley Foundation, headed by Sanibel resident Richard C. Shipley—the center’s namesake.

“People use the word ‘donate’ too often. I view it as investing, because you’re still looking for results. It’s local, you’ve really got some outstanding surgeons, and Lee Memorial Health System has great leadership that, I think, is quite effective at what they do; so the probability of results is much higher,” explains Shipley. “Plus I love the passion that they have.”


DiGiorgi DSC_7843DiGiorgi’s intentions are for the Shipley Center to expand upon the health system’s current cardiac care expertise by establishing an innovation hub focused on patient care optimization, research and learning opportunities for surgical teams worldwide.

DiGiorgi’s intentions are for the Shipley Center to expand upon the health system’s current cardiac care expertise by establishing an innovation hub focused on patient care optimization, research and learning opportunities for surgical teams worldwide.

HealthPark Medical Center has already welcomed more than 100 visiting surgical teams and has hosted national meetings of cardiothoracic experts both nationally and internationally. DiGiorgi and Hummel also train surgeons in national programs for minimally invasive mitral and aortic valve surgery.

“I really like the minimally invasive aspect. With minimally invasive your probability of having side effects becomes a lot less. It doesn’t take years to recover and so you really get to enjoy life,” says Shipley. “It’s not enough to simply live a long life. It’s more important to live an enjoyable one.”

The Shipley Center will also include a component of health education to help patients understand how to stay healthy and potentially avoid surgery. Heart disease is the number one cause of death with more than 375,000 deaths per year, and heart surgery is the most common major surgery performed in the United States.

“We see these very basic problems, smoking, hypertension, diabetes, but at a very advanced stage; and so we have a vested interest, even as surgeons, to make sure that these things are better cared for in the community—whether it’s public education, educating referring physicians, or making things work better in the hospital, and even new technology at the operating level,” says DiGiorgi.

He believes it’s all about looking at the patient as a whole person; not just singling out a specific medical issue, but delving deeper to find out why it’s happening.

“Why is a 40-year-old with out-of-control diabetes now in need of bypass surgery? Where have we dropped the ball? Unfortunately, I see a lot of that, and so I’m willing to step out of the operating room and work with the community to try to fix that problem,” says DiGiorgi. “For me it’s exciting. You typically don’t see heart surgeons doing public health things.”

Also of special interest at the center will be research into frailty screening to give an in-depth understanding of each individual patient’s risk factors, co-morbidities and personal health needs prior to surgery, and provide pre-hab therapies to reduce risk for complications.

“I think it will coordinate care in a way that will enhance outcomes,” says Beckwith, who was excited to hear about the new center. “These times are so overwhelming for the patient as well as their family. By coordinating the care in one center, I’m hoping it will make the entire experience less fragmented, less difficult.”

“One of our big pushes is preoperative optimization,” says DiGiorgi. “It’s a multidisciplinary kind of team approach to work with each patient to reduce their risk of surgical complications rather than just whisk them off to the operating room and accept the consequences.”

The center’s vision is to completely transform the way we do medical care in Southwest Florida, and serve as a model for national health care challenges that exist.

The Shipley Center’s work will be enhanced by an Innovation Committee comprising national and local clinical and administrative leaders, working and retired, with expertise in the pharmaceutical, medical devices, technology and finance areas of healthcare who are interested in leading-edge care, research, education and patient care optimization. Outcomes research will also be shared with the medical community locally, nationally and internationally through medical journal publications and scientific presentations.

“The education goes hand-in-hand with the research efforts,” says Shipley. “Hopefully we’ll have a good collaborative effort here and people are going to learn from each other.”

TAVR has been a nationally and internationally recognized program. The team hopes to build on that experience by continuing the minimally invasive valves, but also working with other community partners such as physician assistant and nursing schools to do simulation labs and other educational programs with them.

“We’ll have the space to do that now, and the lab space to do it,” says DiGiorgi. “We’re also in talks, with Intuitive, the Da Vinci robotic company, to be the only simulation center between here and Orlando. There’s a lot of opportunity.”

“You have doctors coming, internationally, looking at the techniques they’re using, so basically what you’re starting with is a center of excellence. When you start with that and you have doctors that are passionate about what they’d like to accomplish in the way of innovation, that’s a pretty good formula for success. Results do matter and they matter a lot,” says Shipley. “It’s not like this is a brand-new startup. They have the center of excellence in place; they’ve already hit the ground running.”

Though many of the programs are already underway, construction of the Shipley Center must wait until the new children’s hospital is complete. Plans call for converting 10,000 square feet of space currently used for pediatric services on the first floor of HealthPark Medical Center.

“The philanthropic goal is $6 million, to which the Shipley Foundation has devoted $2.5 million. Shipley’s donations will be supplemented by endowments established for Education & Training and Patient Care Optimization; research grants, privately funded and government funded; and other donors that have lined up along the way,” says DiGiorgi.

“I think this is probably the first time that Lee Memorial Health System has moved into something like this, and it certainly won’t be the last,” says Shipley. “I think the capability exists there; with great leadership there’s no reason we can’t do more. We’ve given it a good jump-start, and I hope my contribution and our belief in these efforts will engender a lot of support from the community.”

Those who are interested in making a donation should contact the Lee Memorial Health System Foundation at 239-343-6058 or [email protected].

Kat Velez is a guest contributor to TOTI Media.