Saving kids, in a heartbeat

Thomas DiSessa (MD '71).

What goes around has come around for pediatric cardiologist Thomas DiSessa (MD ’71), who has gone from a once-struggling student to a world traveler with a cause.

DiSessa recalls his second year of medical school as challenging—and life changing. “I had mild dyslexia and failed pathology and psychiatry. I had to repeat the year.” Then he met Peter Vlad, a pediatric cardiology legend who was then teaching as a UB clinical professor.

A Romanian immigrant who left Europe to work in Toronto and then the U.S., Vlad had co-authored a seminal textbook on childhood heart disease and helped pioneer cardiac catheterization, a procedure where a small tube inserted inside the heart’s vessels and chambers allows cardiologists to better see and treat problems within the organ.

Between his junior a senior year, DiSessa completed a fellowship with the American Heath Association at Buffalo Children’s Hospital and had the opportunity to perform a cardiac catheterization with Vlad. The stern, yet generous professor helped DiSessa focus his studies and develop confidence. “I was hooked.”

DiSessa went on to specialize in catheterization and then echocardiography (also known as ultrasound), a non-invasive imaging technology using high frequency sound waves to image the heart. After UB, a pediatric residency at UCLA and a postdoc at the University of California-San Diego, DiSessa taught and practiced medicine, eventually directing the pediatric cardiology divisions at the University of Tennessee and University of Kentucky.

Man with a mission

In 1995, a colleague, surgeon William Novick, invited DiSessa to join his non-profit humanitarian organization, the Novick Cardiac Alliance (NCA), an international group of physicians treating pediatric heart patients in developing countries. During two-week “missions,” as he calls them, international medical teams help local physicians and their staff assess and operate on children, some under a year old, with a host of congenital heart defects that would not otherwise get treated. Just as important, says DiSessa, they teach the local teams modern techniques and collect data for future research and publication.  

DiSessa’s roles during each mission are to help determine the course of treatment, conduct echocardiograms, perform cardiac catheterizations and assist with surgeries. He has published his findings over the years with many of his NCA colleagues.

The work can be stressful and difficult, he says, given each country’s challenges with outdated facilities, missing medical supplies and undertrained staff. Still, he says, “Nothing compares to the joy of seeing a blue child turn pink,” and recalls many young patients whose chance of survival improved markedly after surgery.  

After retiring from academia in 2011 at age 67, DiSessa ramped up his missions to six a year (he’s been on 53 to date), collecting colorful stories of his visits to Beijing, Belarus, Croatia, Ecuador, Honduras, Macedonia and Peru.  

“I’ve been to 11 countries with professionals from more than 20 countries to care for children, teach local professionals and perform international research,” he says proudly. “This could not have been accomplished if UB hadn’t had faith in me and helped me become a doctor!”

Story by Lauren Maynard

Published June 14, 2019