June 24, 2017

Robert Lancey, MD

Heart Health Academy at Bon Secours

When cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Robert Lancey joined Bon Secours Heart & Vascular Institute in 2013, he brought with him an innovative program that had its roots two decades earlier at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.  “I was teaching off-pump cardiac surgery to classrooms of visiting surgeons, operating with a camera to demonstrate how to perform the operation.”  Around that time, the University was routinely inviting high school students to tour the medical facilities, and it was suggested that Dr. Lancey allow them to observe him operating as well.

“The students were fascinated,” he says, “and they liked being able to ask questions while we were operating.  Someone inevitably asked why the patient needed the surgery, and as I explained that heart disease is caused by lifestyle choices – smoking, poor diets, and lack of exercise – it struck me what a great opportunity I had to show, rather than tell them, the results of those choices.”

This led him to subsequently set up an educational class for area seventh graders while at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, NY, and over the first eight years of the program, over 10,000 students participated.  “The original program was about teaching them not to smoke, to exercise, and to eat healthy,” he says, “but it changed and evolved as I saw what worked and how the students responded.”

When he began practicing at Maryview Medical Center, he adapted the program for Hampton Roads – where more than 30 percent of adults and 15 percent of children are obese – and renamed it the Heart Health Academy at Bon Secours – HHA@BS.

The HHA@BS is a three-hour program featuring interactive demonstrations and discussions, videos of open-heart surgery and of lungs damaged by smoking, taken right from the operating room.

“We know heart disease begins at an early age,” Dr. Lancey says, “and many kids are offered their first cigarette at 13.  We’ve targeted the program to the age when they’re beginning to make lifestyle choices.  We start out talking about healthy decision making: seventh graders are smart enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong, so we talk to them about how fast food and tobacco marketing tries to influence their decisions.  We also hook them up to a heart monitor and have them run around the room, so they can see what exercise does for their heart.”

No cute cartoon drawings or animated clips for these students: they’re seeing an open chest, a beating heart, and smoke damaged lungs.  They’re seeing buildups of fat and cholesterol blocking blood vessels.  They’re seeing surgeons opening up these vessels, stabilizing the heart.

“We hit them pretty hard,” Dr. Lancey says of the students.  “We treat them like adults.  We don’t just give them facts; we show them reality.  And we impress on them that they’re the ones who are in control of their health, that they can make their own decisions, but need to make the right ones.”

In its first year, seven area schools participated in HHA@BS; this year Dr. Lancey anticipates the number will grow to twelve.  The service is provided to the schools free of charge.  In addition to teaching seventh graders, Dr. Lancey has also devised similar programs based on the age of the students – from second grade to high school.

He also envisions a robust HHA@BS online presence, providing a different heart-health related topic each week.  The site could allow students to log in, record their exercise, and even more fully participate.

“I give the students a chance to see what it takes to get on my operating table,” Dr. Lancey says,   “so that hopefully they never get there.”