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University Medical Center continues to be pillar of Tucson community

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The University of Arizona’s medical campus and its doctors are an inspiration to the Old Pueblo while also being part of the community at large

Tucson Reels After Shooting Rampage At Political Event Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Should I tell you something? It’s not the ivory tower.”

Merriam-Webster defines ivory tower as: a secluded place that affords the means of treating practical issues with an impractical often escapist attitude; especially : a place of learning

Dr. Zain Khalpey, who told me that this past week when discussing Tucson Roadrunners captain Craig Cunningham’s recovery, is certainly right about his hospital.

It is not the ivory tower of Tucson. It is the defining feature of the University of Arizona globally, and it has become the glue that holds the Old Pueblo together.

Banner-University Medical Center, as it became known in early 2015, vaulted into national headlines in January of 2011 when congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot point-blank in the head in a north side shopping center.

A scenario destined for sadness turned into one of hope and wonderment of medical advances thanks to Giffords’ doctors at UMC and the medical research done at the University of Arizona.

Now nearly six years later, the hospital has put itself back in the spotlight — unintentionally — thanks to a groundbreaking procedure that has given a 26-year-old hockey player another chance at life.

On November 19th, Cunningham was transported to Carondelet St. Mary’s Hospital after his heart stopped on the Tucson Convention Center ice due to ventricular fibrillation. Upon arrival, he was placed under the care of U of A professor Dr. Reza Movahed among others.

But as in any team sport, Movahed needed help if he was to achieve the ultimate goal of saving this young man’s life.

That’s when UMC comes in, and fellow Arizona professor Dr. Khalpey.

Banner-UMC offers several critical services that a place like St. Mary’s can’t, such as the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, or ECMO, that was used to eventually get Cunningham stable that night.

“At that time (after first deciding ECMO was needed), I reached out to my great friend and cardiothoracic surgeon at Banner, Dr. Khalpey, and requested his assistance at the hospital,” Dr. Movahed explained. “This coordination between teams helped to ensure that (Cunningham) would be stabilized enough to transfer him to Banner-University Medical Center for continuing care.”

“The most amazing thing was the glue that bound us,” Khalpey added about the teamwork shown between hospitals and between teams. “From St. Mary’s, from the floor, from the ice, to where we are right now, that is the thing that I think all of us have the humility to say was the most amazing.”

Cunningham was still alive thanks in part to a new CPR technique that was implemented at the University of Arizona as well before he was able to be placed on ECMO.

This wasn’t going to be enough though, so Khalpey offered a new option to Cunningham’s mother, which involves putting a cannula into the apex of the heart to decompress it. The procedure had only been done two times prior...in the entire world. Khalpey said that they were done within two weeks of Cunningham’s, one with a younger patient, and one middle-aged, both performed by him.

“One thing was clear and that was that we had to decompress his heart,” Khalpey said of why the decision was made to start discussing the procedure as a possible option. “And I think in doing that with this cannula, his heart started literally soon after we did that.”

“There’s enough in the literature, in history, in what’s going on here with what we can do to making that bold next step,” he added. “And I think we did, and I thought that was the right thing to do, and that’s what I told his mom, and that’s what convinced myself and her that it was going to be the right thing, and we would make this work, and we did.”

Cunningham’s mom agreed, and the procedure saw immediate dividends, restoring a viable amount of heart function to the hockey player.

“They had run out of options, and had to create new options by pushing the boundaries of things they had tried before,” Cunningham’s mother, Heather, said at a press conference. “They have given Craig a chance to recover that is beyond anything that could have been expected.”

“These people are nothing short of a gift to mankind.”

Khalpey, who is probably best known in the medical community for his research of stem cell impact on cardiac recovery, was ready to make Cunningham the third patient to undergo the cannula procedure with the aide of ECMO.

“I was able to translate some of the stuff I’ve done already into what I think was happening with Craig,” Khalpey said on what his prior research had to do with this specific procedure. “What we do is an iterative process based on a lot of science and how we can translate it, so I think we do things with good judgement, good backing, and good collaboration. That’s my exposure to having a stem cell lab, and that’s what I feel could give him a better chance and a good chance.”

“One has to be cautious,” he added about not only his role, but the University’s role in pioneering medical advances like this. “One can’t be cavalier and brazen about doing what we do. I think we have to be truly transparent, but also make sure that we’re not only at the cutting edge, but that we’re safe.”

Again, UMC is not the ivory tower. But it is hallowed ground, and it continues to serve the Tucson community at large while also making major medical advances like this particular procedure that was performed on the Roadrunners’ captain.

“One of the reasons I think we are the provider to the community is that we can provide a safe level of technology to some things that don’t work, or we can push the envelope,” Khalpey explained. “We’ve got a lot of tools here, and the multi-disciplinary people that are here really means a lot.”

“It’s really cool, and we can provide it to anyone,” he added. “It’s right there, looking at you, ready to go. Our prime goal is to be in touch with the community, and I think this is a very resounding argument for it without having to say a word.”