Living Well

Dr. Dharmesh S. Patel on top of Mount Kilimanjaro

Heart Healthy

By Robin Gallaher Branch | Photography provided by Stern Cardiovascular Foundation

February is American Heart Month and a good time to get to know cardiologist Dharmesh S. Patel, M.D., who shares the latest developments in cardiology.
What is your background?
I was born and raised in London. My ancestry is from East Africa and India. I studied at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital in London and graduated in 1996. I moved to the United States in 1998 and did my internship at the Medical Center of Delaware. I did a medical residency at UVA in Charlottesville and a cardiology fellowship at Penn State.
I came to Memphis in 2004 with the Memphis Heart Clinic, which became the Stern Cardiovascular Center. My wife, Dr. Purvisha Patel, is a dermatologist and skin cancer surgeon in Germantown, Tennessee. We have two children, a son, 11, and a daughter, 8.

Do you have a favorite saying?
Yes, it’s by Helen Keller: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” Her saying brings the human touch to science. It describes the emotions. In my eyes, the heart is the body’s most important organ.

Why are you a cardiologist?
I became fascinated with the heart. The heart is a pump that beats over 100,000 times a day. It pumps five liters of blood per minute around the body – even during sleep.
Heart disease fascinated me initially because it is a predominantly fixable problem, a preventable disease.There have been so many advances in my field of cardiology in my 20 years. Here are examples: Stents with drugs in them, and breakthroughs in the treatment of cholesterol and irregular heartbeats and in the treatment of valve disorders with minimal invasive approaches.

What are some new developments in cardiology?
Lower blood pressure numbers. The new guidelines are good targets: 130/80 instead of 140/90. 120/80 is normal.
I agree with the new guidelines. They raise the percentage of the American population with high blood pressure from 32 to 46 percent. Now 14 percent more are classified with high blood pressure.

What do you do to keep fit?
I exercise 30-40 minutes three times a week. I myself do what I tell my patients to do. My hobby is soccer. I’m 45 and will continue playing as long as I don’t get a major injury. I enjoy the team spirit. I’ve had minor injuries–torn ligaments in the neck, a torn hamstring. It took a year to fully recover. I tell my patients it’s important to warm up and cool down. The warm-ups reduce injuries.

What else do you tell your patients?
I ask them if they service their car. They do. They service it once a year. I ask them, “Is your car more important than your heart?”
I tell them to take care of their heart. I tell them, “Know your numbers. Know your numbers—your blood pressure and cholesterol. Work up a sweat. You have to get your heart rate up. Walk as if you stole something. If it tastes too good, spit it out.”
I tell my patients to get enough sleep and to stop smoking. I tell them that working is not exercising, that even small changes in diet make a big difference, like avoiding sweets and chocolates.

What was a memorable experience?
My wife and I climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. It’s a 20,000-foot mountain. It was a physical and mental challenge. It was a very exhilarating but very humbling experience. I appreciate what my patients go through when they have shortness of breath.
Do you have some suggestions in addition to exercise
and diet?
Get a calcium score; it’s relevant for some patients with cardiac risk factors. A stress test shows if a part of the heart is getting enough blood or not. Although a stress test is accurate, it can miss something 10-to-15 percent of the time. That’s why a calcium test is helpful. It’s a 10-second test done under a CT scan, and costs about $100. It is not invasive. I’ve been able to save a number of patients because of that test.

Some patients fear tests. What’s your attitude
toward tests?
Tests are all positive. If we find nothing, that’s good. If we find something, let’s work on it. If we find a disease, a test is a great way to start prevention and cure. Tests can identify someone who is likely to have a heart event. An event is the beginning of chest pain or a sudden heart attack. A sudden heart attack has a mortality rate of 40 percent. People think they will feel bad before something happens. But events are sudden and catastrophic. Strokes tend to be fatal or can cause disabilities. A person can feel fine one day and be dead the next.

What’s it like to save a life?
It’s a privilege to be in a position to make a difference in a person’s life and in a family’s life. It’s a humbling experience. I always think, “What if I had not been there?”

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