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Vivek Rao

Surgeon buys patients critical time while they wait for a donor heart

Two-and-a-half years ago, 29-year-old Leona Parsons was given 48 hours to live. Today, she can expect to live a full and active life, thanks to an innovative procedure performed by Dr. Vivek Rao (MD 1993).

Dr. Rao was the first cardiovascular surgeon in Canada to implant HeartMate, a mechanical pump that assists heart function until a donor heart becomes available. In a minority of cases, it enables recovery to a point that the device can be removed; such was the case with Parsons, though there is a 25 per cent chance that she will need a heart transplant in the future. For other patients, the device buys critical time while waiting for an all-too-rare donor organ. Since performing Parsons’ surgery, Dr. Rao, a widely published research scientist, has performed 11 other HeartMate implants.

Thanks to a physician-heavy family tree, the idea of becoming a doctor came early to the 36-year-old. “I was always fascinated by the heart,” he says. Already, one of Dr. Rao’s three-year-old twin girls has expressed interest in following in his footsteps, while the other wants to be a nurse. (Dr. Rao’s one-year-old daughter reserves comment as of yet.) Like their father, they, too, may one day walk into an operating room and, as he describes it, “fall in love” with the intricacies of surgery. 

Although some might call his work miraculous, Dr. Rao is remarkably free of the temptation to “play God.” “What patients need to do is take their health into their own hands and not rely on doctors as the only people with the answers,” he says. “If you’re my patient, I strongly encourage you to get on the Internet, read, ask for a second opinion and then decide what you want to do. Because in the end, it’s your health.”

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