PEORIA — Pediatric cardiologist Dr. Bill Albers remembers well the tiny patient who inspired him to specialize in the heart.
"In 1959 I was just out of medical school and had started my internship when a blue baby came in," said Albers. "I was a wide-eyed intern in on the discussions. The doctors took the parents aside and said 'We can't do anything,'"
The child was born with transposition of the great arteries, a condition which was fatal 98 percent of the time. Today the condition is routinely corrected with surgery.
Greatly improved outcomes in infant surgery is just one of the extraordinary advances Albers, 80, has witnessed during his 47-year medical career.
"Being able to operate on newborns and have them survive — it's now very common," he said
Albers talked about his career during a recent interview at the Congenital Heart Center at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. Albers retired at the end of 2013. He saw his last patient Dec. 6.
At Albers' retirement party Friday there was much to celebrate. During his long career he's not only treated thousands of patients, he has also worked to advance both medical treatment and medical education in Peoria. He has worn many hats — he was chairman of the University of Illinois College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics for 14 years, chairman of the St. Francis Medical Center Department of Pediatrics for 30 years, and one of the founding fathers of Children's Hospital of Illinois where he served as medical director for six years.
And while he retired from administrative duties years ago, until a few months ago Albers continued to practice his first love — treating patients.
No longer untreatable
When Albers came to Peoria in 1967, he was the first pediatric specialist to set up practice in downstate Illinois. Albers' inclination to specialize in pediatric cardiology had been set a few years earlier when he worked with Cleveland's pioneer cardiologist Dr. Jerome Liebman at Case Western Reserve.
"Dr. Liebman impressed me — he knew so much," said Albers. "He was able to diagnose so much with his stethoscope. I wanted to be like him." Albers went on to study with world-renown pediatric cardiologist Alexander Nadas during a fellowship at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston.
When Albers arrived in Peoria, he was not only the first pediatric specialist, he was also the first cardiologist in the area. At that time, doctors were just beginning to learn how to treat congenital heart defects, and area doctors began sending Albers patients who had previously been deemed untreatable.
"They started coming out of the woodwork when I came to town," said Albers. One of those patients was Gale Vineyard.
"I was 25 when I first saw him," said Vineyard, 69, during a phone interview from her home in Tucson, Ariz., "I had been born with a heart problem called tetralogy of fallot."
Page 2 of 4 - The condition results in a hole between the lower chambers of the heart, and narrowing of the pulmonary valve. Left untreated, most patients don't survive childhood. Vineyard was a bit unusual.
"When she was born her mother was told she wouldn't survive infancy," said Albers, who could see the symptoms the moment he laid eyes on Vineyard.
"She was very, very blue," he said. "She was probably getting only about 70 percent oxygen. And she had clubbed fingers. The fingers become swollen and the nails become enlarged."
Still, Vineyard insisted she was fine when Albers suggested an operation to correct the defect. She'd always been able to do most of the things she wanted to do, and heart surgery in 1969 was risky.
In the end, however, Vineyard was glad she had the surgery. She went to Chicago for surgery, and when she woke up in intensive care she could immediately tell the difference.
"I looked at my fingernails — I had never seen them so pink before," she said.
Recovery was slow-going. She spent two weeks in the hospital in Chicago, and then had to go back for three more weeks after she developed an infection. An issue with her foot — perhaps caused when the foot lay at an awkward angle during surgery — kept her from really trying out her new heart for six months.
After the foot healed, however, Vineyard was off and skating — a favorite activity since childhood. Vineyard found she no longer got tired after a few turns around the floor. She started bowling, something she was afraid to try before surgery, and she flew in an airplane after asking Dr. Albers if her heart could withstand high altitude.
"I went to Disney World in Florida, and after that I got the bug." said Vineyard, who has since traveled all over the world.
Albers oversaw Vineyard's recovery after surgery. When he found out she had lost her job while out sick, he helped her get a job in the accounting office at St. Francis. She worked there for 33 years.
Vineyard continued to see Dr. Albers until 2000 when he diagnosed her with atrial fibrillation.
"I started having this other problem — I started feeling my heart beating real fast," said Vineyard. "I saw Dr. Albers in the hallway one day and right in the middle of the hallway he took my pulse. Then he said 'I want to see you in my office as soon as you can get in.' I went later that afternoon and that's when he told me 'your childhood disease is now an adult disease,' and he sent me to Dr. Zimmerman. It was a sad day for me. I was used to Dr. Albers seeing me all this time. I went back to the office where I worked and teared up a little bit. It was like losing a friend."
Page 3 of 4 - The next generation
After years of working on the administrative side, the opportunity to devote his energy to seeing patients was a treat for Albers. Another factor that kept him working was that his colleagues needed the help.
"We were trying to grow the program, and we had these outreach programs and someone needed to do them," said Albers. Until two years ago Albers flew his Cessna airplane to visit young heart patients at satellite clinics around central Illinois. At 78 he gave up flying not because of any physical limitation, but because the expense of owning an airplane could no longer be justified now that his duties were less and he had time to drive. At one time Albers juggled administrative duties and visits to Ottawa, Quincy, Mattoon, Danville, Champaign-Urbana and Moline.
The satellite clinics were a key component for growing the pediatric cardiology program. To be financially viable, the program needs to serve a large number of people, so the patient base had to be expanded. For patients in outlying areas, however, the clinics provided specialized care that would otherwise require a long, expensive commute. For Albers, the work was a pleasure.
"That's why you go into medicine — to treat diseases and to help people, to try and make them better," he said. "Over the years I've had the opportunity to follow children from birth to adulthood — I get to know them and their parents. And there's the intellectual challenge, trying to figure out what's wrong and what's the best treatment."
Albers plans to keep teaching. He has an idea for a course at the new Jump Trading Simulation & Education Center to help young physicians learn diagnostic skills that have been lost in this era of high-tech medical tests. Over the years, teaching has been very important to Albers.
"It's one of the reasons I came here," he said. "There was talk about a medical school, but it was very, very early. But there was a residency program here — there have been residency and internship programs at St. Francis for years."
Albers later took on a key role in the creation of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.
"I was very involved. It was about 1970 when it got started," he said. "It was very exciting."
Non-medical activities will also be a part of retirement for Albers, who plays trombone in the Peoria Pops Orchestra and admits a passion for sports, baseball in particular. He also plans to travel since his daughters and grandchildren live on the East Coast. His youngest, Erin Albers, followed in his footsteps — she's a pediatric cardiologist at Seattle Children's Hospital, specializing in heart failure and transplants.
"She used to make rounds with me when she was a little girl," said Albers, who enjoys talking shop with his daughter. "I guess she found the same things interesting that I did."
Page 4 of 4 - Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.