Surgeon becomes first women to win coveted American Heart Association Award

Newark Beth Israel Medical Center has the largest heart transplant program on the East Coast. Its surgical director is the first woman ever to win the American Heart Association‘s Distinguished Service Award. Dr. Margarita Camacho has performed more heart transplants than any other surgeon in New Jersey and more than 98 percent of the surgeons in the United States. Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron asked Dr. Camacho what the honor means to her.

Camacho: Well, I was thrilled. I was thrilled to be given an award for something I love to do. I still have a passion for it. And right along side me is my team at Newark Beth Israel which has amazing passion for what they do. They are truly at the top of their game. In fact, we just finished our 994 transplant, we are six away from a thousand.

Aron: I read that Newark Beth Israel is one of the top ten transplant hospitals in the country?

Camacho: Yes.

Aron: And the largest program on the East Coast?

Camacho: Yes.

Aron: And you’ve done nearly a thousand yourself?

Camacho: No, I did about 550 of those nearly a thousand transplants.

Aron: I remember the first heart transplant, Dr. Christiaan Barnard and what an incredible thing that was for the whole world. Is it routine now?

Camacho: Yes, it is. The waiting list is a long waiting list, it’s a large one. Unfortunately, we can only transplant 2,500 patients a year, although there are probably more than two or three hundred thousand that can benefit from one. So, it has become routine. Take our program for example at Newark Beth Israel, we’ve done so many transplants not many programs have done a thousand transplants, so it’s so exciting right now.

Aron: Rejection used to be the big worry in transplantation. Has that been conquered now?

Camacho: That got a lot better after 1984 with the introduction of cyclosporine which is a drug that some people still use now. And since then there has been other immunosuppression drugs with fewer side effects. That really was one of the main issues with transplants — you had to take those drugs. But, the drugs again have fewer side effects. We have some transplants that have lived quite a long life, more than 20 years.

Aron: You’re the first woman recipient of this American Heart Association award. Is that extra special in some way? Are women surgeons still a rarity?

Camacho: They are still a rarity, but a little less so. It is very special to me to be the first women. In my era of women heart surgeons, there are probably only about 10 to 15 of us. Now, hopefully, I think there are 100 women heart surgeons in the United States, but that’s out of a total of 3,000 heart surgeons.

Aron: I read in terms of general surgeons in 1980, three percent of the general surgeons in the country were women and today it’s 19 percent.

Camacho: Yes, general surgery has a higher percentage of women in their specialty. But, for cardiac surgery it’s really just about 100 women out of 3,000.

Aron: Your title is surgical director of cardiac transplants and mechanical assist devices, so you do more than just transplants, you do bypasses?

Camacho: Yes, I do, and valve operations. Also, the VADs are wonderful. When I first started working with VADs 20 years ago, we had almost rudimentary VADs.

Aron: What are VADs?

Camacho: They are heart pumps to keep you alive similar to what Dick Cheney had, the heart meet two heart pump. And you can go home with them and you can live a really good life with them. I’ve had patients play 18 holes of golf with them, so forth and so on. We are actually the largest VAD center in New Jersey. But the VADs now, these pumps, are small.

Aron: What does that stand for?

Camacho: It stands for Ventricular Assist Device. They are smaller now, they are much more efficient. We have a young women who’s in her thirties, she came to us when she was 29, was dying. She had a six month old at home, and we put that pump in her. And there’s a picture of her, almost eight years later in the Grand Canyon with the pump. That picture was taken within the last six months.

Aron: Wow. You said at the beginning that you loved the work you do. Why do you love the work you do?

Camacho: Well, I first became interested in surgery in medical school because it was an easy way to get an answer immediately. You know, I didn’t have to follow a disease for a long time. It was very gratifying to be able to do hands on treatment that had a result right away. And when I did my cardiac surgery rotation, during general surgery training, I fell in love with it. I love the physiology, I love the challenges and I became even more interested in heart failure because these were people who were truly at the end of the line. I felt if I can do something to help them it would be wonderful.

Aron: Well, congratulations on all of the help your provided and on being honored for it.

Camacho: Thank you, thank you so much.