Heart of Redding
01/24/2014 02:02PM ● Published by Jim Dyar
By Jim Dyar
The Passions of Douglas McConnell, M.D.
Despite a lengthy career devoted to cardiac medicine, Douglas McConnell still becomes animated while discussing the heart. His eyes light up as he describes the tissues and basic mechanisms of the organ so essential to every person who has ever lived.
“We’re actually the miracle,” says McConnell, the director of cardiac surgery for Shasta Regional Medical Center since 2009. “The aura of the human being—we should all be humbled in the presence of what we think we know. The heart is a truly remarkable organ.”
McConnell’s medical office is adorned with large, stunning landscape prints of the North State, which reflect another lifelong passion—photography. A discussion flows from the technicalities of photography to the basics of heart surgery, but McConnell never seems to lose his sense of wonder or gratitude for either subject.
Of photography, he says: “I let God create the beauty, I just try to capture the image.” But at the same time, “If you don’t have the physics right, you don’t have an image.”
Regarding cardiac surgery, he mentions: “Any success is really the result of the people I work with. It’s like a small orchestra and we all know the score. The character and cohesiveness of this group of caregivers is remarkable. It’s an honor to work with them.”
A few decades back during his medical residency at UCLA, McConnell participated in the initial team research for the technique known as cardioplegia—the intentional and temporary cessation of the heart during cardiac surgery. Cardioplegia allows physicians to do longer and more complex procedures on the heart and is commonly used in today’s surgeries.
“I was lucky to be able to do some of the first cardioplegia work at UCLA,” he says. “You don’t think about it at the time, but (the procedure) turned out to be very important.”
Before coming to Redding, McConnell spent 28 years in cardiac and thoracic surgery at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, where he served as both chief of staff and chief of surgery. During his tenure at Shasta Regional Medical Center, he and his team have performed more than 450 heart operations.
In a push to highlight preventive care, McConnell has more recently helped launch a dietary program called Shasta Heart Smart, which focuses on “ideal proteins” for individuals. People typically need cardiac surgery as the result of some form of metabolic syndrome, a combination of conditions that include obesity, elevated blood pressure, diabetes, high triglycerides, and low high-density cholesterol (HDL) levels.
McConnell says the program has helped him and some of his coworkers shed excess pounds, and he’s seen people with Type II diabetes get to the point where they no longer require medication. Along with diet, the standard checklist helps limit the risk of heart disease: get consistent exercise, avoid smoking, monitor your cholesterol levels, limit your stress, and limit your alcohol intake.
McConnell, who has twice been honored in the Record Searchlight’s Health Care Hero series, says an experience at age 20 sealed his desire to become a surgeon. He was an undergraduate at Stanford who had just completed a summer job at Yale when his Chevy Nova was broadsided by a car in New Jersey. He sustained serious internal injuries and remembers looking into the eyes of a physician who told him he would need immediate surgery to stop the internal bleeding.
“I’m a far better physician today because I was a patient,” he says. “You go from being invincible one moment to suddenly having to trust a surgeon with your life. It was an eye-opening experience and you realize that we’re all fairly interdependent on each other.”
Other elements of McConnell’s background are as colorful as his panoramic photos of the North State. His office also includes a painting of John Wayne, who was a neighbor of McConnell’s family in Southern California. As a kid, McConnell played on a youth baseball team sponsored by the famous actor—the John Wayne Giants. He has fond memories of the Duke attending team parties and even hollering across the street, “You gettin’ any good yet?” Years later at UCLA Medical Center, McConnell visited Wayne in his hospital room while the icon was in ill health.
McConnell also served as a physician in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army upon completion of his residency at UCLA. He describes himself as a “fish out of water” who had “never been so humbled in all his life” upon suddenly finding himself as an officer at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. His military brethren quickly brought him up to speed and helped shape what he still considers an “invaluable” life experience.
Patients and coworkers have noted such deeds as McConnell visiting patients at their homes to check on them after surgeries, and loaning Shasta College nursing students money for tuition after hearing on the radio that their student loans had been frozen. Those things are a simple matter of paying it forward, he says.
McConnell and his wife Bonny have five children and four grandchildren. Though still somewhat of a newcomer, he says he loves the North State and those who reside here, as well as the landscapes he attempts to capture in the best light—usually the very early morning light.
“My only regret is that I didn’t get here sooner,” he says.