When Dr. Jack Symmes first arrived in Newmarket in 1978, he was the only cardiologist between Toronto and Sudbury. At the time Southlake was known as York County Hospital (YCH) and it was, in Dr. Symmes’ words, a quiet community hospital.
Dr. Symmes had been a cardiologist for just a year and was completing his certification in general internal medicine at the time. When he was hired, he was still completing a one-year contract at St. Joseph’s Hospital so, in order to begin offering cardiac services at York County , he travelled to Newmarket every other weekend.
At the time the Hospital had a four-bed coronary care unit, complete with monitors, but very little in the way of extra equipment. There was a treadmill for stress testing but no ultrasound. There was no cardiac surgery, no permanent pacemakers, no catheterization, no angiograms, not even any clot-busting drugs. Patients who came to the hospital with a heart attack were sent to Toronto. Even that was tougher as Hwy. 404 did not yet exist.
Limited resources made diagnosis a challenge. “We could hear a murmur,” Dr. Symmes says, “but we only had a stethoscope and it was difficult to determine where that murmur was coming from.” As a result, those patients too had to be sent to Toronto.
Around 1979 the first echocardiograph machine, albeit a rudimentary -unit, was purchased and, along with bringing Dr. Symmes to Newmarket, signalled the beginning of advancing coronary care in this community.
It was not until the late 1990s, though, that giant steps began to be made thanks to the vision of then hospital president and CEO, Dan Carriere, who felt that local residents deserved access to advanced healthcare services closer to home. After some retraining, Dr. Symmes was able to begin performing coronary angiograms in a catheterization lab constructed in the hospital and equipped by General Electric as a demonstration site. Then, everything changed when the fantastic announcement was made that the hospital was to receive a full regional cardiac program.
“That was unbelievable, beyond my wildest dreams that this could happen in Newmarket,” Dr. Symmes says. “In no time we went from what was perceived as a bit of a backwater hospital to a place people drove themselves to instead of calling an ambulance because they feared they would be taken elsewhere.”
Along with the announcement came the reality that the entire cardiac program, including staffing, would need to be built from the ground up. Dr. Symmes, who loves being a cardiologist, knew that type of massive administrative undertaking was simply not his passion.
“I was a community cardiologist,” he says. “What was needed was someone well-connected who would take on the big leadership role.”
After that leader, Dr. David Fell, was found, Dr. Symmes recalls a discussion about hiring an administrative assistant to help in the development of the program. “I was making plans on the back of a napkin,” he laughs. “Computers, admin assistants, those were concepts that were so obvious I had to laugh that we had not thought of them before.”
Dr. Symmes cannot sell his forward-thinking short, though. In the 36 years he has been practising, he has left a big mark, both on his own patients and countless others who have benefitted from the cardiac rehabilitation program his team developed.
According to Statistics Canada, the cardiovascular death rate in Canada has declined by more than 75 per cent since 1952 and nearly 40 per cent in the last decade—largely due to research advances in surgical procedures, drug therapies and prevention efforts.
Dr. Symmes believes stepping up prevention efforts will be key to further reducing the death rate.
“The progress in intervention is incredible,” he says. “We have all been moving forward so quickly we have simply not had the time to develop primary prevention strategies. We need to make time to accomplish this in the future.”
A lot of things have changed since Dr. Symmes was the only cardiologist between Toronto and the Nickel Belt, but his style of patient care is not one of them. After 36 years, Dr. Symmes still has a busy cardiology practice and patients who adore him.
He takes the time to really listen, they say. It’s not surprising that, after all these years, he has seen many of his patients for so long that now, they seem like old friends.