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2012 Health Care Heroes: John W. Fehrenbacher, M.D.

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Health Care HeroesFINALIST: Physician

John W. Fehrenbacher, M.D.

Director of Thoracic Aortic Surgery Program, Indiana University Health

 

John Fehrenbacher, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon, performs one surgery per day, starting around 7 a.m. and often wrapping up after 5 p.m. Wednesdays are reserved for patient follow-ups and new patient consultations. He figures he’s performed nearly 2,000 aneurism surgeries by now, including at least 400 complex thoracic and thoracoabdominal aneurysm surgeries, which are his trademark.
 

Fehrenbacher_John_Phys.jpg (Photo submitted)

These complicated cases are referred to Fehrenbacher from physicians in Indiana and surrounding states. Fortunately Fehrenbacher, 62, doesn’t shy away from the difficult tasks. “It’s like most things in life,” he said. “The harder you work at it, the more gratifying it is.”

And the better his results get. After surgery, the mortality rate for his patients is 3.1-percent versus the national average of 15 percent. Only 1.7 percent of his patients experience renal failure after the surgeries versus the national average of 12 percent.

He achieves superlative results using Deep Hypothermia and Circulatory Arrest, a specialty procedure he pioneered and perfected. With DHCA, patients are cooled to 15 degrees Celsius, allowing the side branches of the aorta that feed the brain, the kidneys, the spinal cord and other organs and body systems to be temporarily disconnected, restricting blood flow, so the procedure can be performed. If the organs and body systems aren’t reconnected within a certain timeframe, the patient can be paralyzed.

“Developing this technique to do the thoracic and thoracoabdominal aneurysms under hypothermia has probably been my biggest contribution to medicine,” Fehrenbacher said. “It can change the quality of life pretty dramatically in some patients, and in other patients it helps to prolong their lives. It’s very gratifying. I get Christmas cards from people I’ve operated on 10 years ago.”

By the mid- to late ’90s, these complex surgeries had become the focus of his work, but Fehrenbacher pioneered other surgeries in the state earlier in his career: the first lung transplant in 1989, the first heart and lung transplant in 1989 and the first bilateral lung transplant in 1991. In 2003 he was awarded Indiana University’s Teacher of the Year in Surgery. He was listed twice in the Guide to America’s Top Surgeons by Consumer’s Research Council of America.

A “lifelong Hoosier” from Evansville, Fehrenbacher began his career at Indiana University Health in 1983 after earning his degree from the IU School of Medicine. He knew he wanted to be a physician from age seven when he suffered a severe burn and was hospitalized for several months. “I became interested in medicine and in helping people,” he said. “Having a strong work ethic and compassion for people is critical in what I’m doing now.” So is honesty. “Being honest, not only with others, but with yourself … will get you pretty much wherever you want to go,” he said.

Training others to carry on with his work is his priority now. So far he’s trained nearly 20 cardiac surgeons in his DHCA procedure, some from as far away as Japan and Turkey.

“Dr. Fehrenbacher has served in a number of national and regional leadership positions and is recognized by his peers as a tireless advocate of quality outcomes,” said Mary Baker, vice president, Cardiovascular Services, Indiana University Health. “There’s no doubt he has made a lasting impact in the field of Thoracic Aortic Surgery. Without his passion, commitment and vision, many patients would not have gone on to enjoy positive and productive lives.”

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  • Great man
    Doc John is not only a great surgeon he is even a better person . We feel he has saved many life's of family and friends especially my father. He deserves every award . Thanks John

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  1. I took Bruce's comments to highlight a glaring issue when it comes to a state's image, and therefore its overall branding. An example is Michigan vs. Indiana. Michigan has done an excellent job of following through on its branding strategy around "Pure Michigan", even down to the detail of the rest stops. Since a state's branding is often targeted to visitors, it makes sense that rest stops, being that point of first impression, should be significant. It is clear that Indiana doesn't care as much about the impression it gives visitors even though our branding as the Crossroads of America does place importance on travel. Bruce's point is quite logical and accurate.

  2. I appreciated the article. I guess I have become so accustomed to making my "pit stops" at places where I can ALSO get gasoline and something hot to eat, that I hardly even notice public rest stops anymore. That said, I do concur with the rationale that our rest stops (if we are to have them at all) can and should be both fiscally-responsible AND designed to make a positive impression about our state.

  3. I don't know about the rest of you but I only stop at these places for one reason, and it's not to picnic. I move trucks for dealers and have been to rest areas in most all 48 lower states. Some of ours need upgrading no doubt. Many states rest areas are much worse than ours. In the rest area on I-70 just past Richmond truckers have to hike about a quarter of a mile. When I stop I;m generally in a bit of a hurry. Convenience,not beauty, is a primary concern.

  4. Community Hospital is the only system to not have layoffs? That is not true. Because I was one of the people who was laid off from East. And all of the LPN's have been laid off. Just because their layoffs were not announced or done all together does not mean people did not lose their jobs. They cherry-picked people from departments one by one. But you add them all up and it's several hundred. And East has had a dramatic drop I in patient beds from 800 to around 125. I know because I worked there for 30 years.

  5. I have obtained my 6 gallon badge for my donation of A Positive blood. I'm sorry to hear that my donation was nothing but a profit center for the Indiana Blood Center.

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