Dr. Lishan Aklog, associate chief of cardiac surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, eagerly embraces new technologies for heart surgery. “If I’m not open-minded about new, potentially beneficial technologies, then I’m not doing the right thing for the patient,” the 38-year-old heart surgeon argues: So enthusiastic is he about the future of technology in heart surgery that he and some partners are starting their own company, Flexcor, to develop devices for heart surgery.
The idea that “anastomotic devices,” surgeries such as “off-pump bypass” and minimally invasive or “robotic” surgery reduce the number of incisions and hasten recovery reinforces Aklog’s “it’s-all-about-the-patient” stance. It’s also why he sits on the advisory boards of four of the country’s five largest medical device companies involved in heart surgery (Guidant, Medtronic, St. Jude and J&J/Cardiovations).
Chicago became a safe haven for Aklog and his older sister in the mid-1970s, when their father and mother, Ethiopia’s first cardiologist and woman university professor, respectively, sent them there to escape a bloody civil war raging in that country. Two years after his arrival in the United States, at the age of 15, Aklog entered Harvard with plans to become a physicist, but a summer visit to Ethiopia led him to abandon those plans. “I saw the impact my father and his physician friends had on people. I, too, wanted to directly impact people,” he says. He then enrolled in Harvard Medical School, where he signed up for the “New Pathway” program, a radical new initiative that gave future physicians hands-on experience working with patients.
He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College and cum laude from Harvard Medical School before applying for residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. During ten-year residency there, he narrowed his surgical track to cardiothoracic surgery. “It was a natural extension of what drew me to surgery,” Aklog says. “In heart surgery, every interaction, every operation, is major. It’s technically demanding.”
In the late 1990s, during the “early stages of revolution in heart surgery,” Aklog began to constantly evaluate medical devices and approaches for optimum patient benefit. The idea, he says, was to “accomplish the same goals with less trauma to the patient, which could potentially constitute faster recovery.” He became one of the first heart surgeons to use surgical robots in the operating room.
Aklog, who is a founding member of the Association of Black Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgeons, also routinely uses “off-pump bypass surgery,” which is performed without having to connect the patient to a heart-lung machine, and an anastomotic device that connects the arteries and veins to the heart. “Anastomotic devices are going to be a major advance,” he says.