The Beat interviews: Dr. Talal Al-Atassi

October 6, 2020

When did you become interested in a career in medicine?

It all started after my tonsillectomy, when I was five-years-old. It was a life-changing experience for me, to meet the doctors and to hear the anesthesiologist say, “I’m going to put you to sleep now.” I was so impressed by the whole experience, even at such a young age.

I was born in Syria. At the time, we didn’t have computers or iPhones. I remember a trip to my local print shop, where I had my own business cards designed and printed. At the time, I had just completed a project on the cardiovascular system at school. I was fascinated with the heart. On my business cards, I put down “cardiac surgeon” as my profession. Even in my youth, I knew I liked the hospital environment, and that heart project I had completed in class really pulled me in.

"Cardiac surgery is one of the most technically challenging specialties. There is very little margin for error, and I love that."

- Dr. Talal Al-Atassi

I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I was attracted to the heart: its anatomy, its physiology, the mechanics of it. But what I loved most was that I could make such a drastic and immediate impact on the patient. Cardiac surgery is one of the most technically challenging specialties. There is very little margin for error, and I love that.

Where did you complete your studies, and what are your professional certifications?

I earned my medical degree from McGill University. Then, I came to the Heart Institute’s training program for cardiac surgeons. I received my Royal College certification in cardiac surgery by 2015. I assumed the role of chief resident for three to four years, and that served me well in terms of my training.

During my residency training, I also earned my master’s in public health from Harvard University with an emphasis on epidemiology and biostatistics.

In 2015, I went to the United States – first to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles – to complete a fellowship in aortic surgery with an emphasis on less-invasive techniques, called endovascular surgery. I completed an extra year at Emory University in Atlanta with an emphasis on minimally invasive valve surgery, specifically percutaneous and transcatheter therapies. I am the first Canadian surgeon to formally train in these novel transcatheter techniques at these leading American centres.

What are your clinical interests and why do these subjects interest you?

The two areas I am most interested in are aortic surgery and percutaneous and transcatheter therapies for valves.

I’m interested in aortic surgery specifically because it involves a lot of planning. It’s very technically challenging in terms of the surgical skill it demands, but also the outcomes for the patient are immediate. A lot of the acute aortic dissections have a high mortality rate, and by doing surgery, a surgeon and the care team can alter that course immediately.

Cardiac surgery has really changed in the last decade in terms of the innovation in technology and the techniques we can now perform. One of the biggest revolutions in cardiac surgery is transcatheter aortic valve implantation. A surgeon can insert a valve through the groin with wires while the patient is still awake without having to do open heart surgery. This has revolutionized cardiac surgery and cardiology. We perform this technique together at the Heart Institute as a team. Cardiologists, surgeons, radiologists, nurses, all of us sit down together to discuss each case, and we take a multidisciplinary approach. Those aspects contribute so much to patient care because now patients have much more options and a dedicated team to take care of them, to think about them, and to try to achieve the best possible outcome for them.

 You work at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. What does this place mean to you?

I was attracted to work at the Heart Institute because its surgeons have an excellent reputation for mentorship. But, more than that, I am drawn to the family-like culture and the environment and the collegiality across our care teams. The whole Heart Institute operates as a family. I’ve never seen that any place else. It’s truly a family. So, for me, it’s the combination of a family-like culture and the tailored mentorship I received from the cardiac surgeons that drew me to train here.

I benefited so much from my training at the Heart Institute that I decided to come back because I felt like I wanted to continue working in such a positive environment. I want to give back to the institution that helped shape me into the surgeon I am today.

What do you hope to achieve through your work at the Heart Institute?

I must go back to the pillars of the Heart Institute, which are three-fold: clinical excellence, research, and education. I want to add to Heart Institute’s repertoire and push the boundaries within my field of practice, allowing the Heart Institute to continue to be a cutting-edge institution in the areas of my specialty.

We’re a very high-caliber institution in terms of producing impactful research. I hope that I continue to contribute to novel research that stands out on the international stage. I want to innovate within the walls of the Heart Institute.

I want to give back and hopefully train a new batch of excellent cardiac surgeons. I just was promoted to program director for our residency program in March of 2020. My plan is to help the residents feel the same thing I felt when I was training here. I want them to feel technically excellent and able to contribute to the research body in rich and meaningful ways.

What is one thing you wish you could tell every patient?

I always remind my patients that I will do my best, and that I will treat them as though they are my own parents or siblings. I believe patients want to know that you are there for them, and that you’re doing your best. The same attitude applies to research and education, and for our residents coming in. We do extraordinary things extraordinarily well. We really do give 100%. Everyone at the Heart Institute has this philosophy, which is why we do so well.