Waikato cardiologist off to New York with Heart Foundation grant

A $100,000 Heart Foundation training grant means Waikato cardiologist Mariusz Wolbinski is off to the Big Apple for world-leading cardiology training at New York’s Columbia University in 2018.

Mariusz Wolbinski Waikato cardiologist receives Heart Foundation grant

Wolbinski hopes this training will help hundreds of Kiwis on long waiting lists for catheter treatment of structural heart conditions, such as heart-valve replacement or repair, stroke reduction procedures and closing holes in the heart.

These procedures are performed without the need for open-heart surgery and, in some cases, without a general anaesthetic.

“We currently perform about two of these operations a week at Waikato Hospital, which is one of the leading centres in New Zealand. Although I regularly assist with these, there isn’t enough volume in centres throughout Australasia for formal training to become a lead-operator in this field. In New York they do several procedures a day,” says Wolbinski.

Heart Foundation training grants

The grant was recently announced as part of the Heart Foundation’s 2017 total funding of $1.8 million for heart research and specialist training for cardiologists.

“This is a make or break part of the whole process. Without this grant I wouldn’t have been able to apply for training like this.”

In Europe and America, heart patients requiring valve surgery increasingly have a choice between chest-cracking, open-heart surgery or having the valve replaced through the groin with a catheter.

“In New Zealand, under our current system, only high-risk surgical candidates are eligible for trans catheter, aortic-valve replacement, intermediate-risk patients are not offered this option and those deemed too risky for surgery are only offered palliative treatments. Also, we don’t offer mitral-valve repair using this technology here yet, but I expect all this to change.”

The two methods have similar outcomes for certain groups, but two very different experiences, and having access to either procedure means that each patient can get the right treatment, Wolbinski explains.

“For trans catheter aortic-valve replacement you can remain awake for the procedure, only have a small hole in your leg to access a blood vessel, lie flat for a few hours afterwards, get up and walk around in the evening, and go home the following day,” he says.

“With open-heart aortic-valve surgery you are put to sleep, have your chest cut open, spend the night in ICU coming out of anaesthesia, spend a week on the cardiothoracic surgery ward with a significant chest wound, and recovery can take five to six weeks."

Grant boosts application

Although an Advanced Fellowship position at the Columbia University Structural Heart Centre at New York Presbyterian Hospital is extremely competitive internationally, Wolbinski says the New Zealand Heart Foundation training grant gave him a big advantage in his application.

Wolbinski and his family immigrated to New Zealand from Poland when he was three-years-old, and have since become New Zealand citizens. He grew up in Porirua, an area with a high prevalence of rheumatic heart disease, and underwent specialist cardiology training at Wellington Hospital.

"The Wellington Cardiology Department worked hard to start a trans catheter heart valve programme throughout my training there, and I am pleased to say they successfully implanted their first trans catheter aortic valve in July 2017."

Specialist training to benefit Kiwi heart patients

He is keen to return home on completion of his two-year overseas training programme however, a specialist position in structural heart intervention may not be immediately available in New Zealand.

“My aim is to learn from world pioneers in this area of cardiology with the hope of bringing these skills back to New Zealand."

As one of three Overseas Training and Research Fellowships included in this years’ funding, Heart Foundation Medical Director Gerry Devlin says he is pleased the Foundation can support opportunities for young New Zealand cardiologists like Wolbinski.

“These grants cover a wide spectrum of research and training from ‘bench to bedside’. Starting with lab research through to improving cardiovascular risk prediction and cutting-edge overseas training for Kiwi cardiologists. This year’s funding will improve cardiovascular care for all New Zealanders,” says Devlin.

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