Interview with Dr. Cornelius Davis
Our latest newsletter features Dr. Cornelius Davis, a renowned and distinguished Cardiothoracic Surgeon who shares his expertise on cardiac and vascular health. Dr. Davis’s insights shed light on common heart-related conditions, the impact of lifestyle choices, available surgical options, and technological advancements in the field.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, affecting people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. According to the CDC, someone dies from cardiovascular disease every 33 seconds. With the new school year starting, parents may have concerns about their children’s heart health, especially if they participate in sports. To address these concerns, read this interview with Dr. Davis, as he provides valuable information on common heart-related conditions, warning signs, and preventive measures.
Meet Dr. Cornelius Davis, a certified cardiothoracic surgeon with an impressive track record of achieving 3-star STS performance. He has led hospital outcomes in level 1 and 2 facilities and is renowned for his innovative techniques that make patient care simple and effective. With extensive experience in the medical field, he has held leadership positions, including Medical Director of Cardiovascular Services and Chief of Surgery in major healthcare systems in Houston.
Dr. Davis completed his medical education at Duke University School of Medicine and holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Northwestern University. He has published in prominent medical journals and has been a speaker at numerous research and healthcare conferences and symposiums. He is credentialed with Emergency Hospital Systems.
For further questions, you can reach Dr. Davis at email@example.com
Could you share how you became a cardiothoracic surgeon and what inspired you to choose this field?
I went to Duke University Medical School, where the Chairman of the Surgery department, Dr. David Sabiston, was the first person to do a Coronary bypass. He built a department heavily slanted toward heart surgery and innovative techniques. Many of the other people he brought in were also very dynamic, which resulted in a large portion of my medical school class focusing on heart-related topics such as cardiovascular surgery, cardiology, and related subjects. So, my interest in the field was mainly motivated by the mentoring of people who were very dynamic and very good at what they did. They made the field look very exciting and interesting. They fixed people that nobody thought could be fixed.
What are the most common cardiac and vascular conditions that you come across?
If you examine the most common conditions that lead to someone’s death in the United States, they are heart attacks and heart-related conditions. Almost everyone is familiar with a relative who has died due to a heart condition, it is extremely common. Other vascular-related illnesses associated with this are stroke and aneurysm, which are also very common. Consequently, we all encounter cardiovascular conditions. This is not limited to what I see but expands to our experiences with our families, relatives, and friends.
Could you tell me what warning signs we should look for in these conditions?
I think that’s one of the things that people don’t quite understand. They all think it’s just chest pain. And while many people will experience chest pain, it differs depending on the person you’re talking about.
Some people, particularly women, might feel pressure or a sensation like a band across their chest. Some might describe it as feeling like a little elephant is sitting on their chest—I heard this just last week-.
Symptoms can also include pain in the jaw, left shoulder, left arm, and in the back. So, the symptoms can be very variable.
Do these symptoms usually appear suddenly on the same day of the event, or do they develop over several days or weeks?
Well, it can occur on the same day of the event, but more commonly, when you talk to the person, and they’re honest, they often had some sort of clue that something wasn’t right in the weeks leading up to the event. Typically, they had attributed it to something like, ” I thought it was just heartburn,” or “I thought I was getting older,” or “I believed it was related to something I ate.” They recognized that something was off, but they didn’t seek medical attention.
Usually, at what ages do these types of conditions happen most?
Up until 2020, the answer would have been individuals over the age of 50 would be the most likely to suffer cardiovascular illnesses. But since 2020, in the pandemic, we’ve seen a startling number of individuals between 20 and 50 experiencing sudden episodes of cardiac or vascular-related illnesses. And so now it seems like this is something that everyone must be aware of.
Recently, there have been some media reports about cases of cardiac arrest, especially among young people. How frequently does this occur?
Before the pandemic, cardiac arrest among the young was very rare and almost always comprised of individuals who had a type of enlarged heart, in which the section of the heart that was enlarged was impeding the blood flow into the heart. When teenagers are required to get physicals before entering school or competing in sports, that’s what the doctors were checking for. And so that’s been the norm.
But more recently, we’re seeing a startling rise in the number of young people suffering from cardiac arrest. And honestly, nobody knows exactly what’s causing it. We all think it has something to do with the pandemic because it didn’t exist before. There’s a lot of speculation, some of which is politically motivated, some of which is data-based, but no one has a clear answer for why we’re seeing this. But we are seeing it.
How does a cardiac arrest differ from a heart attack?
The difference between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack is as follows: A heart attack is linked to a particular blood vessel in the heart being blocked. These are the coronary arteries. When these blood vessels are blocked, the heart muscle doesn’t receive enough blood to function properly. And if it becomes severe enough, the muscle starts to die, resulting in a heart attack.
On the other hand, a cardiac arrest can be caused by two different factors: one, a coronary vessel is blocked by spasms – the vessel constricts – and the other is when the rhythm of the heart becomes abnormal, either too slow or too fast, leading to an inability to support blood flow through the heart, causing the blood pressure to drop suddenly. This is referred to as a cardiac arrest.
What advice can you give to parents who are concerned about their children having a heart issue while playing sports?
One thing to do is to have a physical routine check to ensure everything is in order. If they notice anything abnormal while their children exercise -such as being abnormally or excessively tired – they should consider going for more in-depth tests. They could perform a more detailed examination by using an echocardiogram to look at the heart. They examine the heart to determine if it’s contracting normally in all the different muscle segments, and to check that the heart is doing what it should.
Should this physical routine check be done for every child, or only if there’s a history of cardiac arrest or heart issues?
I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone. Currently, studies are underway to determine whether conducting EKGs on all children would help identify those who might eventually experience an arrest.
We don’t have conclusive information yet. I assume it might not effectively identify those who will eventually have an arrest. The electrical behavior of the heart will be normal until something changes, and the scenario is put in motion where they’re going to have the arrest, so until then, everything will look normal. At present, the numbers do not justify the need for extensive testing.
How can people prevent cardiovascular diseases? Which lifestyle factors play a role in preventing heart disease?
Four factors contribute to cardiovascular disease. The most significant factor is smoking, as it predisposes individuals to blockage of blood vessels and related issues. The primary problem with smoking is often associated with lung cancer, but cardiovascular disease is more common among smokers than lung cancers. That’s the number one factor.
The second factor is diabetes. We are seeing a rapid increase in diabetes cases in the United States, mainly because the population is getting fatter. There seems to be a lack of recognition that the growing size of individuals can have a profound impact on both longevity and quality of life. Our population essentially exposes themselves to a shorter and less pleasant life by not maintaining a healthy body weight.
We must spread awareness about the importance of achieving a healthier body weight. The media don’t often promote this message as it’s sometimes labeled as fat-shaming, and it is not fat-shaming. What we’re trying to do is make life as enjoyable as possible, and part of that is maintaining a healthy weight and not subjecting your body to diabetes.
The next two significant factors are high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Both can be readily identified and treated, but individuals must seek medical advice and follow the recommendations they receive.
By managing these four factors, the risk of cardiovascular disease can be substantially reduced.
What about physical exercise? Does it help to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease?
Absolutely, if you consider large-scale studies involving significant numbers of individuals who engage in regular exercise -3 or 4 times a week-, there’s a marked decrease in the risk of death. And it’s not limited to just cardiovascular disease; it extends to reducing the risk of death due to pulmonary disease and cancer as well. Exercise is very important.
When I discuss this with my patients, they often think, “I need to go running.”, especially in Houston’s heat, reaching over 100 degrees, they express concerns. That’s when I clarified that we’re not urging them to run; rather, we’re encouraging them to walk. People tend to underestimate the tremendous
benefits of walking multiple times a week. it’s about walking a couple of blocks. If patients can establish a walking routine, I recommend they do it after dinner since it helps digestion and effectively reduces the occurrence of heartburn and reflux. If the weather is too hot, I suggest a morning walk when temperatures are cooler. This is something that nearly everyone can incorporate into their routine.
If someone already has an existing cardiovascular condition, is it recommended to engage in exercise?
If we look at patients with a history of cardiovascular conditions, we can distinguish between two groups: those who regularly exercise and those who don’t. What you’ll observe is that the group committed to regular exercise experiences fewer issues compared to the group that doesn’t exercise. Those who don’t exercise have a recurrence rate of cardiovascular disease that’s four times higher. So, even for individuals who have previously dealt with cardiovascular disease, it’s highly advisable to incorporate exercise into their routine.
Talking about the topic of surgical options, what factors determine whether a minimally invasive procedure is needed versus an open surgery?
It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with the surgery and the location of the procedure. Based in my experience – I initiated the robotic heart program at the Methodist Hospital in the Med Center several years ago- we can perform minimally invasive procedures across various regions, including the chest, abdomen, and even the extremities, such as arms and legs. However, the decision should be based on the patient’s particular circumstances.
Some practitioners specialize in performing minimally invasive procedures on the legs, but they may lack training in open surgery techniques. Consequently, they might attempt to fit every patient into the framework of minimally invasive methods. Yet, this might not work well for all patients. The benefits of having proficiency in both approaches allow surgeons to select the most suitable procedure based on the patient’s specific condition.
What current technological advancements are applied in performing these surgeries? Specifically, what kind of robotic techniques are involved in these surgical procedures?
The answer to that varies based on the context and location. I handle a diverse range of surgical procedures. When dealing with chest surgeries, some practitioners utilize endoscopic techniques, which are very similar to those employed in abdominal surgeries. These techniques can also be adapted for chest surgeries. In terms of blood vessels, particularly within the vascular system, the use of catheters plays a crucial role. In such cases, we navigate an artery with a catheter, targeting the problem area and resolving it from within the vessel. This approach leaves the patient with only a needle hole instead of a scar on their leg or arm.
Dr. Davis, thank you for taking part in this interview. Is there anything else you would like to add or share?
I would like to encourage everyone that if you have the suspicion that there’s something serious going on with your health, do not ignore it and don’t account it to the age when something dramatic changes.
It doesn’t mean that you’re just getting older. It means that something’s not working and that you should go to your primary care provider and report what’s going on and report it truthfully. Many things can be done today that don’t require you to be in the hospital for a long time, and that could save your life.