Dr. Vetrovec Retires After 39 Years in Cardiology

Dr. Vetrovec Retires After 39 Years in Cardiology

“Dr. Vetrovec has a long history of innovation and being a pioneer in the field of interventional cardiology. He has trained many people all over the world who have gone on to illustrious careers.

He has really been a thinker and been involved in many of the key clinical breakthroughs over the last 25 or 30 years, and his success, along with his colleagues here, has made VCU Health one of the leading institutions in interventional cardiology.”
— Kenneth Ellenbogen, M.D., Chairman of Cardiology and Chief of Surgery

George Vetrovec, M.D., a professor and the recently retired director of the Adult Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory, is in the middle of packing up 39 years’ worth of memories in the West Hospital. As a result, instead of his office, the interview takes place at Einstein’s Bagels in VCU Medical Center’s Main Hospital. A trim man, with wavy gray hair and a neat moustache, Vetrovec smiles and exchanges a few friendly words with the colleagues who call to him as he passes by on his way to the cafe. He picks up the tab for his guest’s coffee and settles into a booth.   

“I was born in Ohio, but as I sometimes tell it, I was conceived in Petersburg,” says the frequent lecturer. “It gets a laugh.”

Vetrovec’s mom was seven month’s pregnant when the family moved from Virginia to Ohio. The family then moved to Chicago—where his paternal grandparents had immigrated (“that’s the Czech background,” he says)—before finally settling in Sandston, Virginia.

An only child, his mother was a stay-at-home mom; his father, an architectural draftsman. “He was a handy guy. As a draftsman, he was very meticulous,” he says. Vetrovec developed an interest in tools, like his father, and was a ham radio operator. “I remember building, when I was in sixth grade, an early transistor radio. I brought it to school. I think the kids thought I was weird,” he says with a laugh.

In ninth grade, his curiosity paid off; he was among the students selected to go to MCV for a student heart day, a program sponsored by the medical center and the American Heart Association. “I remember getting to see an early bypass pump and all that sort of stuff. I found that very exciting.”

A top student at Highland Springs High School, Vetrovec went on to receive a scholarship to University of Virginia, which he attended for both his undergraduate and medical degrees—becoming the first doctor in his family.

He worked at MCV during the summers when he was in college, conducting cardiology research for the physicians that he would later call his mentors, Dave Richardson, M.D., and Hermes Kontos, M.D. He’d written to Richardson after reading an article about his research. “He hired me sight unseen,” he recalls.

Following medical school, Vetrovec returned to MCV for his internship and residency in internal medicine and his fellowship in cardiology. Then, he was hired as an assistant professor at MCV in 1976, initially working in cardiac rehabilitation and running stress tests.        

What drew him? “I really wanted to be on the faculty of a teaching hospital. I love clinical medicine, but I also wanted to be a part of the evolution of new things and the development of new things. And I thought this was where you could do it.”

“As a young doctor, he was very smart and very careful. He was a leader, and he and Dr. [Michael] Cowley were among the first in America to do a balloon dilation of the coronary arteries.  I was the chairman of the Division of Cardiology then, and it was very exciting.” — David W. Richardson, M.D., emeritus professor of medicine

Vetrovec recalls the twist of fate that brought him to the cardiac catheterization lab, which began in the mid-1960s and was one of the first in the state.  In 1976, after the lab’s founder had left, “they brought in a fellow from Boston to head the lab, and ironically, he got terrible asthma in Richmond. And his goal had always been to run the Boston Marathon, so after a year, he quit and went back to Boston. And that’s how ultimately I became head of the cath lab in 1977,” he says.

He describes his early West Hospital days. “Back then, we used 35 millimeter film. The images were X-ray images recorded on movie film. You took the pictures, and the films were developed right there in the cath lab. Now it’s all digital,” he says, noting the superiority of today’s imaging. Catheter lines were inserted through a “cutdown,” which involved making a small incision in the brachial artery in the arm, instead of the groin.

“Dr. Vetrovec is a giant in the field of interventional cardiology. He was an important mentor in my career at VCU. He worked very closely with me to develop a close relationship between cardiology and cardiac surgery, leading to the emergence of VCU Health Pauley Heart Center as a leader in cardiac care.” — Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., chief of Surgery

In September 1977, Andreas Gruentzig, M.D., performed the world’s first balloon angioplasty. Vetrovec traveled with Michael Cowley, M.D., another young VCU doctor, to Geneva to study the technique with Gruentzig. Vetrovec and Cowley became the first physicians in central Virginia—and likely the state—to perform a balloon angioplasty in July 1979.

“It was new, it was different, and it potentially was going to change the cath lab from a diagnostic lab to a treatment lab,” he says. Today, VCU Health Pauley Heart Center physicians undertake the lifesaving procedure, which now includes the placement of a stent, on about 1,000 patients each year.

Over the years, he’s been at the forefront of testing new devices and techniques. He reflects on some of the latest interventions, including robotic-assisted angioplasties and trans-aortic valve replacements, that are taking place in new hybrid labs.

“This is a lab that’s been known for high-quality patient care and outcomes, but it’s also been known for innovations, doing treatments during the investigative stage, and being a lab that was at the cutting edge. I don’t think that’s changed at all,” he says.

“I first met Dr. Vetrovec when I was interviewing for medical school. He took me in under his wing and helped guide and develop my career as a physician scientist, encouraging my efforts in cardiovascular research and fostered a love for bringing scientific discoveries to patient care. He has an impeccable reputation in the interventional cardiology community as an amazing educator and interventionalist.” — Michael J. Lipinski, M.D., Ph.D., interventional cardiologist and scientific lead of Pre-Clinical Research, Medstar Heart and Vascular Institute.

“Dr. Vetrovec is the main reason why I came to VCU from Italy. He always inspired me to give my best, always aim at doing better, and always care deeply about the patients and the coworkers.” — Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., James C. Roberts, Esq., Professor of Cardiology, VCU Health Pauley Heart Center

Vetrovec has long been a rallying figure for the VCU Health Pauley Heart Center. He served as chairman of the Division of Cardiology from 1991 to 2009 and led two major fundraising campaigns that secured over $14 million in donations for the heart center. In recognition of his efforts, he received the first W. Robert Irby Philanthropic Leadership Award by the MCV Foundation and was also awarded the 2010 Distinguished Service Award.  In 2013, through the support of a grateful patient, the George W. Vetrovec, M.D. Endowed Cardiology Chairmanship was established in his honor.

In his retirement, he’s planning to spend more time with his family, which includes his wife Mary, two children (John, a stockbroker, and Beth, a cardiology nurse) and their spouses, and four grandchildren. He’s looking forward to traveling and photography. Vetrovec stays busy lecturing and is a consultant to Abiomed, which manufactures a cardiac pump used principally during high-risk angioplasties.

He also plans to continue teaching—one of his favorite roles at VCU through the years. He often tells his medical students, “You ought to spend five more minutes talking to your patients because they’re really interesting people.”

“Working with people, that’s the real joy of medicine,” he says with a smile. “There are a lot of long hours and challenges in this profession. But at the end of the day, the patients are so appreciative.”

The faculty, staff and administration of VCU Health Pauley Heart Center and his friends from the MCV Foundation thank Dr. Vetrovec for 39 wonderful years!

Dr. Vetrovec has:

• Performed an estimated 18,000 procedures in the cath lab.

• Trained students who are now cardiologists in more than 25 states and seven countries.

• Authored or co-authored more than 200 papers.

• Received the American Heart Association’s National Award of Merit in 1991.

• Been named “Clinician of the Year” by his colleagues in 1997. 

• Been named a Master of Cardiology by the American College of Cardiology in 2014.

• Received the VCU Presidential Medallion in 2014.

cover-story-collage_lgOn October 11, 2015 members of the Pauley Heart Center Consortium Group gathered together to celebrate the nearly four decade career of Dr. George Vetrovec. Dr. Vetrovec announced his retirement late in the summer, however his passion for medical education will keep him close, he will spend 1-2 days a month working with and mentoring residents and fellows of the Division of Cardiology. The event, hosted by the MCV Foundation Board of Trustees, included over 120 friends, patients, alumni and donors. The evening concluded with a program highlighting Dr. Vetrovec’s accomplishments as a caregiver, educator, fundraiser, academic leader and mentor. Former trainee, Dr. Jeff Marshall, announced that the Division had created the George W. Vetrovec, MD Symposium to honor Dr. Vetrovec’s longstanding and continuing commitment to cardiovascular education. Dr. Marshall urged those who shared Dr. Vetrovec’s passion to join him in supporting the symposium. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Lauren Moore at 804.828.3632 or lauren.moore@vcuhealth.org.