Dr. Jonathan J. Drummond-Webb: World Class Surgeon

by Jill Bayles  on Monday, Apr. 15, 2002 12:00 am  

Jonathan J. Drummond-Webb is an Arkansan by choice, having arrived in Little Rock from South Africa by way of Salt Lake City and Cleveland just 18 months ago.

He is chief of pediatric and congenital cardiac surgery at Arkansas Children's Hospital, through an arrangement with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, where he is also on the faculty.

In addition to being the highest paid state employee who doesn't coach men's athletics at the University of Arkansas, Drummond-Webb has turned ACH's David M. Clark Heart Center into one of the most successful pediatric heart programs in the nation. In 2001 alone, he and his team performed 536 cardiovascular surgeries that resulted in a record-low 1.8 percent mortality rate. And last June, he joined Dr. Beverley Ketel, also of ACH, in performing Arkansas' first successful heart-kidney transplant.

"One of my nurses says I'm South African by birth, Arkansan by the grace of God," he said, laughing. "But I feel very strongly about what we can do here. Arkansas doesn't have to stand back for anybody. We had a president come from here, and that's a much more difficult and unlikely accomplishment than what we're doing here at the hospital."

The 42-year-old Johannesburg native credits a fellow South African for inspiring his life's work.

"When I was nine years old, something very important happened in South Africa," he said. "Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the world's first heart transplant in Cape Town. I remember hearing about it and being simply amazed that someone could actually do that with the human heart. From that day on, I knew I wanted to do the same thing."

Dr. Drummond-Webb pursued his goal at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersand Medical School, receiving his medical degree by the time he was 22. Two years of conscripted service in the South African military followed, along with the realization that his homeland wasn't the best place for a cardiologist.

"With so many impoverished people in that country, the argument was that you have to justify what you're doing," he said. "By performing a cardiac procedure on one person that costs a certain amount of money, it was pointed out that you could save 100 starving children with the same amount of money. I discovered that I had two options — I could stay in South Africa and change my field, or I could move somewhere else and follow my dream."

With the encouragement of his wife, Dr. Lorraine De Blanche, Dr. Drummond-Webb accepted a fellowship in cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City — the same hospital where Seattle dentist Dr. Barney Clark received the world's first artificial heart in 1982.

He stayed in Salt Lake City two years and might remained there even longer had the renowned Cleveland Clinic — the nation's top heart hospital not come calling.

Trailblazing work on very young patients at the Cleveland Clinic made headlines, and physicians all over the world took notice — including those at Arkansas Children's Hospital. After its chief of cardiac surgery, Dr. Stephen VanDevanter, retired in January 2000, ACH sent its cardiac patients to the Cleveland Clinic, where Dr. Drummond-Webb operated on them. Hospital officials soon convinced him to move to Arkansas.

"I would have been very comfortable staying [at the Cleveland Clinic], doing what I was doing, but down here there's a need," he said.

There's also, in his opinion, tremendous potential.

"ACH is a well-kept secret, with excellent facilities and a staff that's enthusiastic, dedicated and selfless," he said on his arrival in January 2001."It has the potential to become a world-class heart center, and within five to 10 years, I can help make it a dominant force in the country."

He's already on the road to that goal, thanks to supporters like Arkansas' loggers, who raised more than $1.5 million to create for him the most generously funded endowed chair in ACH's history — the Log A Load For Kids Endowed Chair of Cardiovascular Surgery.

Since Drummond-Webb's arrival, the program has more than doubled its cardiac anesthesia team, opened a second cardiac operating room and added four cardiologists, three nurse practitioners and three cardiac nurse specialists. Two more cardiac surgeons are slated to come on board later this summer.

"People ask me, 'Why are your numbers so good?' I tell them that I do what I do because of a team. I have a facility here that is the best in the world, and honestly, a monkey can do what I do with the support I have."

And although he says a lifetime of living in big cities hasn't worn off yet ("I still drive around expecting to see skyscrapers"), he's proud and pleased to be living in The Natural State — and passionate about changing what he perceives as a slight inferiority complex among the natives.

"I want this department to achieve the same level I expect from myself," he said, "so that they can continue to carry on long after I'm dead and gone. If I can leave a legacy of a caring and loving attitude, then I think I've accomplished something worthwhile."



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