New American Heart Association president driven by family history

Dr. Gordon F. Tomaselli, 55, Professor and Chief of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, became president of the American Heart Association on July 1.
Dr. Gordon F. Tomaselli, 55, Professor and Chief of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, became president of the American Heart Association on July 1. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

It was 1985, and Gordon Tomaselli had graduated from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and completed his residency at the University of California at San Francisco. He was at a Boston hospital, interviewing for a possible fellowship, when he got the phone call: His mother had gone into cardiac arrest.

Within three weeks, Patricia Tomaselli would have a new heart, and her son would have a new career path. Before that moment, Tomaselli said, he had not been entirely set on a career as a cardiologist. He was also interested in neurology.

But his mother's experience with debilitating heart disease — she was the second woman to receive a heart transplant at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston — "galvanized my desire to be a cardiologist," he said.

In 1986, he joined Johns Hopkins, where he is now chief of the division of cardiology. And last week, he started a term as president of the American Heart Association. He is the seventh Hopkins physician to be named president of the AHA, which promotes itself as the oldest and largest voluntary organization devoted to fighting heart disease and stroke.

In the new role, Tomaselli will be a spokesman and advocate for heart health, making the case for eating well and exercising, and pushing for a greater investment in cardiac research.

Tomaselli speaks quickly and softly and smiles easily. Though he still sees patients, his primary focus is research. He has written more than 170 articles, and one of his areas of interest is determining who is likely to die suddenly of cardiac arrest and therefore would benefit from implanted cardiac defibrillators.

"He's a brilliant scientist, he's an excellent physician," Dr. Myron Weisfeldt, chairman of the department of medicine at Hopkins and AHA president in 1989-1990, said of his colleague. "And over and above that, he's a real leader. He's a person whom people trust. He's very convincing in what he says. He understands the big picture."

David Livingston, who staffs the nominating committee for the AHA, said Tomaselli's combination of stellar reputation, AHA involvement and ability to make his case helped earn him the presidency. About a dozen candidates are nominated each year, he said.

"He was very well known to the members of the committee," said Livingston. "He had a good picture of where the association is presently, because that's the baseline, and where the association would like to go."

Tomaselli has been volunteering with the American Heart Association since 1992. In 2007 and 2008 he was program chair for the AHA's Scientific Sessions, and he is currently chairman of the association's 2010-13 Strategic Planning Task Force and Science Advisory & Coordinating Committee.

"My own concept is that if you look at not for profit organizations in the U.S., it's hard to find an organization that has been more influential in our society than the AHA," said Weisfeldt, who, like Tomaselli, was chief of cardiology at Hopkins when he served as AHA president.

As a Hopkins physician, Tomaselli said, he sees "the sickest of the sick." Even though treatments are better than ever, heart disease can't be reversed, he said. A better goal is to prevent it through common-sense steps such as limiting sodium, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in a healthy range, exercising, and not smoking.

As president of AHA, he said, he will push for more physical education time in schools and urge the Food and Drug Administration to change its recommended sodium maximum from 2,300 to 1,500 milligrams a day. "Fifteen hundred is the right target," he said.

But the issue he will focus on most is securing increased funding for biomedical research, he said. "I view the Heart Association from the prism of research," he said.

Tomaselli said research investments drive economic growth, a fact "we in Maryland appreciate." It also leads to advances in prevention and treatment.

Weisfeldt agreed that research funding "right now is an incredibly important issue," but he noted that while stimulus funding allowed some hiring, cuts are now expected. "It's bad right now and everybody thinks it's going to get worse," Weisfeldt said.

Tomaselli envisions a day when scientists can use stem cell material to grow hearts for transplants. More immediately, research dollars could speed the invention of devices that perform some of the heart's functions, he said.

Other avenues of research, he said, include developing a greater understanding of physiology and aging, and creating studies that compare the pros and cons of treatments. "I'm not asking for funding," he said. "I'm asking you to invest."

According to Tomaselli, the National Institutes of Health currently devotes just 4 percent of its budget to cardiac issues and 1 percent to stroke-related research.

Tomaselli will remain at Hopkins during his one-year tenure as president, which began July 1, but he will travel frequently, attending conferences and visiting the organization's seven regional offices.

He knows his agenda for the AHA is ambitious, but he also knows change is possible. His mother lived for 21 years after her heart transplant, dying in 2005 at the age of 69, he said. Patients today are less likely to die of heart attacks and less likely to have heart attacks, compared to the mid-1980s, when he was starting out.

"Cardiovascular medicine is one of those cases where we have had a lot of success," he said.

Dr. Gordon F. Tomaselli

In the news: New president of the American Heart Association

Jobs: Chief, division of cardiology, Johns Hopkins Hospital; Michel Mirowski, M.D., Professor of Cardiology; co-director of the Johns Hopkins Heart and Vascular Institute

Age: 55

Born: Portland, Maine

Education: B.S. from SUNY Buffalo in 1977, medical degree in 1982 from Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Research focus: Understanding arrhythmias in patients with heart disease

Personal: Married to Charlene Tomaselli, with three children: Sarah, 28; Emily, 26; and Matthew, 13

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