At the Abrazo Arizona Heart Hospital, there’s a wall that reads “To Care, To Teach, To Pioneer.” This mission statement, created by Edward “Ted” Diethrich when he founded the Arizona Heart Institute (AHI) in 1971, has guided the journeys of countless young surgeons over the years at this campus dedicated to the detection, treatment and prevention of heart disease.
“Eventually the campus became known as ‘The Power of Three,’” Diethrich says. “The Arizona Heart Institute, an outpatient cardiovascular center known for its cutting-edge diagnostic equipment; the adjacent Arizona Heart Hospital, focused on the treatment of heart and blood vessel disease; and the Translational Research Center, the investigative initiative to nurture an embryonic idea from bench-to-bedside.
“There are not many places in the world that have this combination of facilities, all attached – and I had a great team to help me accomplish that,” he adds. Diethrich is one of the most revered, creative, and, at times, controversial leaders in his profession. His lifelong love affair with innovation and invention began in 1962 with the sternal saw, illustrating his penchant for pushing the boundaries of what was medically possible. He raised awareness about heart disease, caused disruption and litigation in the medical landscape, and used outside-the-box methods (such as transplanting cells from the thigh into the heart of a patient to get the patient well enough for cardiac surgery).
The surgeon recounts much of his 50-plus-year career in his new autobiography, The Serendipitous Life of Edward Diethrich (Orange Frazer Press; available online at drteddiethrich.com). It touches on some of his most significant cardiovascular discoveries, and reveals the often unconventional paths the surgeon took, like the time he lied about his age to get a job as a hospital orderly at 15, or when he utilized engineers from Ford and GM to troubleshoot technical problems with artery repairs. And it doesn’t gloss over the numerous controversies and hurdles he encountered – including one of the largest lawsuits in Phoenix medical history.
In the early ’70s, physicians didn’t work with the media; it was considered unethical. But as Diethrich developed the Arizona Heart Institute, he wanted to use media relations for public outreach about heart disease prevention. He did just that, including a 1972 cover article in LIFE magazine.
Shortly thereafter, a group of Phoenix surgeons tried to expel Diethrich from the Valley for his cutting-edge practices and media coverage. “My methods were threatening to many, especially physicians. They thought my educational methods were direct advertising,” Diethrich says.
This group of nine surgical competitors, which Diethrich refers to as the “Medical Mafia” throughout his autobiography, would meet and brainstorm ways to generate negative publicity about Diethrich, according to his book, including filing several malpractice lawsuits against him, including one where they said he put in a heart valve upside down. The courts exonerated Diethrich in every case, but the damage was done: Diethrich was removed as Medical Director of AHI, and his family became outcasts.
In 1974, Diethtrich – back at his post as AHI’s medical director – filed a $100 million counter-lawsuit against the “Medical Mafia” and several medical associations, charging them with antitrust violations, conspiracy and restraint of trade. Diethrich and the AHI settled the lawsuits against the surgeons and a few of the medical associations that had supported them for an undisclosed amount (the court records are sealed). “There was no choice but to persevere,” Diethrich says. “We had a vision for the Arizona Heart Institute.”
But the protests never truly dissolved. When the AHI established a freestanding catheterization lab, many in the medical community felt it was unsafe and beyond cutting-edge. (Today, this outpatient format is the standard.) When Diethrich was developing an artificial vessel graft with a company named Gore in 1984, his associate surgeon formed another company, Impra, to do the same graft development. This led to a 16-year lawsuit between Gore and Impra; Gore lost the lawsuit, and Diethrich was never asked for a deposition.
While he had a hand in several inventions (see sidebar), Diethrich views the establishment of the Arizona Heart Foundation and Heart Institute among his greatest.
After working under Dr. Michael DeBakey at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine as a young resident, Diethrich wanted to create his own program to treat heart disease and educate the public. But he had what he called “wild, far-out ideas,” with no way to develop his own team in Houston. A few cardiologists, armed with investors, recruited Diethrich to build a cardiovascular surgical program at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, and in 1971, he established the Arizona Heart Foundation and Heart Institute.
In 1983, Diethrich performed the first live televised heart surgery (on PBS) to a national audience; in 1984, he performed the first heart transplant in Phoenix. He accomplished Arizona’s first heart and lung transplant in 1985, and advocated for multiple organ transplant programs.
“His greatest accomplishments were bringing heart transplantation to the Phoenix market, his innovative device developments, and his pioneering efforts in the field of endovascular therapies – it’s been said he changed the world of vascular surgery,” says Paula Banahan, who has worked with Diethrich for more than 35 years and is executive director of the Arizona Heart Foundation.
“We wanted to develop a less invasive, no transfusion, no incisions, outpatient procedure,” Diethrich adds. “Let’s make this simpler and safer.”
Diethrich, now 80 and living in Paradise Valley, is on a current mission to inform the public about how constant exposure to radiation in his early career spurred his brain tumor in 2012, and he recently contributed his story to the documentary Invisible Impact: The Risk of Ionizing Radiation on Cath Lab Staff.
As the Medical Director of the Arizona Heart Foundation, Diethrich may not be directly making rounds, but he’s still on the path to educate, something he excels at, according to Banahan. “It was my first day in 1979, and on morning rounds Diethrich stopped to ask me about a patient’s potassium level. The next day, he repeated the question. The third day, I was prepared,” Banahan recalls. “He asked me what my patient’s hemoglobin was, and walked away. He was teaching me to know every single point of my patient’s recovery. From that day on, there was never a question I couldn’t answer.”