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By Dr. Chitra Selvaraj

Another week, another accomplishment at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

First a little background.

For a long time people around here have been conditioned to think of Memorial as a safety-net hospital that serves mainly those who cannot afford to go to some better hospital where people with money go.

It is perhaps symptomatic of a city that lost confidence in itself that surrounded by greatness, they have no concept of greatness. Like possessing the mightiest waterfalls in the world and not becoming rich in consequence.

Much of what turned Memorial around started about seven years ago when its board of directors hired Joseph Ruffolo as president and CEO.

Here was a man who did not lose confidence in himself or the hospital he serves. In spite of the poverty of this city, he has, with the help of a strong and dedicated staff of more than 1,000 employees, turned this hospital into one of the finest in the country.

You read that right. Memorial is becoming regarded as a cutting-edge hospital with an amazing mix of services, and success rates rivaling big-money hospitals with affluent patients.

Memorial under Ruffolo went from losing $5 million or more per year and being at risk if losses did not stop of shuttering to a hospital that not only breaks even or pretty close, but provides more than $7 million a year in free medical services to poor patients.

What Ruffolo did was not just cut costs and services as many heads of other hospitals have done in many cities, but rather he expanded, invested and brought in new revenue.

More patients come here. A lot more.

Under Ruffolo's leadership, a new state-of-the-art emergency room that draws some 30,000 people a year was developed. He built a behavioral health department; he developed a teaching institute for resident physicians called Osteopathic Family Medicine Residency program; he started primary care medical practices to help people in Niagara and Erie counties get first-class care and to reverse the trend so often seen in poorer cities where people who don't have a regular physician use a hospital's emergency room in lieu of visiting a doctor.

He developed an Endocrinology/Diabetes Center, the only one in the area. Their 24-station outpatient dialysis unit serves approximately 100 patients a week.

Memorial is a state-designated Stroke Center and has kept up with the best technology and care-giving practices. They invested $500,000 in a new Pharmacy Medication Administration System to eliminate medication errors, the No. 1 killer in hospitals.

Ruffolo led the charge to revamp equipment from antiquated to state-of-the-art for the 117-year-old hospital and developed one of the leading Heart Centers to be found anywhere in the USA.

Following a landmark study that showed Niagara County ranked No. 1 for deaths from heart disease out of 3,141 counties in America, Ruffolo led Memorial to raise $20 million through grants and private contributions to create the Heart Center of Niagara. It put Memorial on the cutting edge of medical technology and the death rate from patients experiencing heart attacks dropped from 16 percent in 2003 to 2.8 percent by 2008.

The Heart Center's state-of-the-art diagnostic technologies are available 24 hours per day. The new technologies -- Positron Emission Tomography or PET scanning, and Computed Tomography or CT angiography -- are a non-invasive way to provide immediate, accurate, pictorial information about the blood flow in a patient's coronary arteries and any blockages that may be present.

They save people's lives and catch heart attacks early -- sometimes on the spot -- and keep people healthy with regular check-ups and monitoring.

Some other places have this advanced equipment, to be sure, but its landmark application at Memorial is that it is attached to the emergency room, which means it is open 24 hours per day, seven days a week. The Heart Center is located on the floor above the ER.

As Dr. Michael E. Merhige, director of the Heart Center, told the Reporter, "I don't think there's a place in the world that has PET attached to an emergency room available 24/7.

"From my standpoint, if I were going to have a heart attack anywhere in Western New York, my preference would be to be seen in the ER right here."

Now Memorial is doing it again: They are taking it a step farther.

For those who care about the health of the community, it may be the big news of the year.

The Buffalo Heart Group, LLP, one of Western New York's largest and, according to many sources, the most highly regarded cardiology practice in the area, has entered into a partnership with Memorial Medical Center.

Effective Oct. 3, Buffalo Heart Group will open an office in the Heart Center on 10th Street perched above the ER.

Buffalo Heart Group offers additional diagnostic, clinical and invasive cardiology services including cardiac stress testing, Holter monitoring, echocardiography, nuclear cardiology and peripheral vascular imaging, coronary artery disease management, including high blood pressure and cholesterol control, and congestive heart failure management.

They provide a mix of prevention and acute care including quality electrophysiology services such as cardiac arrhythmia management, pacemaker implantation and follow-up, and implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD) implantation and follow-up.

The Buffalo Heart group brings with them a team of board-certified invasive cardiologists that perform cardiac angiograms and coronary interventions such as stent placement.

Robert Neufeld, M.D., the head of Memorial's Division of Cardiology, will remain at the Heart Center as a member of the Buffalo Heart Group team.

Six additional Buffalo Heart Group cardiologists then will join the Niagara Falls Memorial medical staff. They are:

Also joining the medical staff are two outstanding nurse practitioners: Kathleen Ruggiero, FNP-C, and Jennifer Earsing, NP.

All these will join current Heart Center physicians Michael Merhige, M.D., and Eram Chaudhry, M.D., to provide an overwhelming array of heart experts in inpatient and outpatient cardiology services at Memorial.

"Cardiac disease remains a persistent and pervasive health issue in Niagara. In fact, the death rate for heart disease in Niagara County is still more than 40 percent higher than the rate for the state as a whole," Ruffolo said.

"Partnering with the Buffalo Heart Group greatly augments our ability to provide a true continuum of care to address Niagara's No. 1 health problem."

The Buffalo Heart Group has been providing cardiovascular disease management services since 1987.

"The Buffalo Heart Group team is committed to providing high-quality cardiology services to the patients of the Greater Niagara community," said Bradley Hall, the group's chief operating officer. "We are honored by this opportunity to form a collaborative partnership with Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. We look forward to helping the cardiovascular service line at Memorial grow and prosper."

In a special message to the Reporter, Ruffolo added, "We have forged a new partnership with the best and largest cardiology group in Western New York: The Buffalo Heart Group. This is big and very high quality. The Heart Center will be providing heart-healthy prevention methods and cures for countless new patients. It's about literally pumping better blood for healthier hearts for the people of Niagara."

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 27, 2011