Bret Mettler says that throughout his youth, he maintained a passion for science and for sports. The two interests combined well for him in surgery.
“It’s that concept of competing with yourself and competing for outcomes,” says Mettler, who became director of pediatric cardiac surgery and co-director of the Blalock-Taussig-Thomas Pediatric and Congenital Heart Center in January. “Every day is a new challenge, and it went along with the athletic prowess I had, wanting to win and succeed.”
Mettler comes to Johns Hopkins from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he spent nearly a decade as an assistant professor of cardiac surgery and director of pediatric cardiac transplantation and mechanical support for Vanderbilt’s Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital. He specializes in pediatric cardiac surgery, pediatric heart transplant, congenital heart diseases and thoracic surgery.
As routine practice, Mettler asks his patients and their parents to send him holiday cards so he can watch the children grow. By the time he left Nashville, he says, his walls were covered with 10 years’ worth of photos. He saw newborn patients become fourth graders.
“The best part of working with this population is knowing you’re changing a child’s life,” he says. “Children’s parents tend to be young, so they expect to have 50 to 60 years with their child. Being able to give them that gift and being able to affect that child and allow them to have a long life, I can think of nothing better in medicine.”
At Johns Hopkins, Mettler has both short- and long-term goals for the Division of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery as well as the Pediatric and Congenital Heart Center. First, he’ll help reorganize the heart center to bring together — under one collaborative structure — the disciplines of pediatric cardiac critical care, pediatric cardiac anesthesia, pediatric cardiology and pediatric cardiac surgery. Down the road, Mettler says, he wants to further develop the adult congenital heart center and the pediatric transplant and mechanical support programs, increase outreach to patients nationally and collaborate with other centers on multi-institutional studies of children with congenital heart disease. Only 100 or so cases of congenital heart disease occur in every 1 million people, Mettler says, so no center has enough patients to perform needed large-scale studies.
“Our goal is to provide a service line of care, where patients can call one phone number and have access to cardiology, ongoing studies, surgical therapies, postoperative care or outpatient care,” he says. He also wants to see “a dedicated hospital floor to put these patients on, with nursing staff who really understand congenital heart disease and the specific issues that go along with children who are affected.”
On the research side, Mettler has been interested in developing a type of artificial pulmonary valve using a patient’s own stem cells. The structure would grow and develop as the child ages, without the replacement operations necessary with current bioprosthetic valves or with valves transplanted from donors.
Mettler received his M.D. from the University of South Dakota. He completed residencies in general surgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and the University of Michigan Medical Center, a research fellowship in cardiac tissue engineering at Boston Children’s Hospital, and residencies in cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Virginia Medical Center and in congenital cardiac surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital.