“To steal a line from Lou Gehrig, today, I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said of the award. “The university has been phenomenally good to me in my career.”
VCU President Dr. Michael Rao presented the award to Dr. Hess at the university’s annual Opening Faculty Address and Convocation in September. Dr. Hess was previously honored with VCU’s Distinguished Clinician, Distinguished Scholarship, and Distinguished Clinical Care Awards and received the Outstanding Teacher Award from six medical classes.
Dr. Hess joined VCU’s faculty in 1975, after serving two years in the U.S. Navy as a clinical cardiologist. He currently is a Professor of both Cardiology and Physiology. Dr. Hess attended medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, where he met and married his wife, VCU cardiologist Dr. Andrea Hastillo. At Pittsburgh, in addition to his work in cardiology, he embarked on a number of pivotal studies in the physiology of the heart with Dr. Norman Briggs. He completed his fellowship in cardiology at VCU, and then began working with the post-transplant patients of Dr. Richard Lower.
“He played a key role in early research with Dr. Lower, as it applies to the care of the modern transplant patient,” said Dr. Keyur B. Shah, Medical Director of the Mechanical Circulatory Support program at VCU. “We often lean on him for guidance, thanks to his wealth of experience with heart transplant patients.”
Dr. Hess said he used to spend Tuesday nights on Dr. Lower’s porch with esteemed colleagues like Dr. H. M. Lee, “trying to pound out the problems that we were having at the time.”
The problems in the 1970s and 1980s included high mortality rates for transplant patients and the fact that “the world of cardiac transplantation was so young that there were no rules, no guidelines,” he said.
The desire to share information with others in the transplant field led Dr. Hess, in 1981, to create the International Society of HeartLung Transplantation. Dr. Hess served as the society’s first president. Today, the organization is the world’s leading scientific society of transplant physicians and surgeons and operates the International Registry for Heart and Lung Transplantation, the only database of its kind in the world.
Dr. Hess has published more than 200 research papers, and currently focuses his studies on responses to the rising epidemic of heart failure.
“There are five million people in the United States with symptomatic heart failure,” he said. Given the limited availability of donor hearts, he sees the development of mechanical assist pumps as the future. As a physiologist, he ponders how the body will be affected by the pumps, especially some of the continuous–flow styles that replace the body’s natural pulse.
“What does this do to the human body? Does it change things? What are the long-term effects? What are the short-term effects?” he said.
When asked if such matters might be contemplated on Dr. Lower’s porch today, he responded enthusiastically.
“Oh, we would be talking about it.”