Dr. James Quintessenza Takes a Hands-on Approach

James Quintessenza, M.D., co-director of the Heart Institute, talks about what motivated him to become a doctor, how heart surgery has evolved, and why pediatric heart surgery is one of the ultimate team sports in medicine.

James Quintessenza, M.D., in an operating room at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital

James Quintessenza, M.D., co-director of the Heart Institute, has been a pediatric cardiac surgeon for 30 years, operating on children from infants to adolescents.

Published in Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital - Winter 2021

James Quintessenza, M.D., likes working with his hands.

He relaxes by playing the guitar, building furniture, doing crafts, even changing the starter in his son’s car. Anything technical or mechanical.

“Those are some of my diversions, music and mechanical things,” he says.

Quintessenza’s hands also are a focus of his professional life. For 30 years, he has been a pediatric cardiac surgeon, operating on children from infants to adolescents. He is co-director of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Heart Institute and chief of pediatric cardiovascular surgery. He loves his work.

“When you impact a child, that’s an entire life and the family you have impacted,” he says. “That’s a huge thing for them. I just felt like, if you’re able to do this work, the impact and the benefits that you’re providing people are extraordinary. I decided if I could do this, I wouldn’t choose anything else.”

Between surgeries, patient family consultations and his home diversions, Quintessenza spent a few minutes giving insight into the life of a pediatric cardiac surgeon.

What's something people might find surprising about you?

I used to play in a band. I love music. It's very fortunate I have a day job and don't have to depend on music for my living or else I'd starve, but I really enjoy it. I also have a captain’s license and really enjoy being on the water.

What motivated you to become a doctor?

I loved science growing up in school, and I liked people. I thought how can I put those two things together? I thought being a physician could bridge those two things.

You were part of the first pediatric heart transplant at All Children’s in 1995. How does a surgeon stay at the forefront of the latest skills and techniques?

All of heart surgery is really not that old. The first heart surgeries were done in the 1950s and really were pretty crude. Probably the 1980s marks the modern era where you could take a small child into heart surgery and have a high probability of success. In my career, we’ve gone from hoping for a good outcome to expecting a very good outcome. It’s been a very dynamic process of continual improvement and innovation over time. Pediatric heart surgery is one of the ultimate team sports in medicine. There are so many highly skilled providers that all work very closely together to make the outcomes great. Cardiologists, intensivists, anesthesiologists, perfusionists, nurses, pharmacists and many other very essential providers at many levels all playing very important roles … and all have continued to improve over time to make our patient experience the best it has ever been.

After 27 years at All Children’s, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center recruited you away to restart a heart program at Kentucky Children’s Hospital. What did you learn through that experience?

Cincinnati is one of the top pediatric cardiac programs in the country. They wanted an experienced person to be in charge at a satellite campus at Kentucky but also to work on the Cincinnati campus. I learned a ton, tried to teach a bunch. I was able to go there and validate a lot of things we were doing here. Some of the things we were doing here were more innovative than what they were doing. I also learned a lot of things that were new to me up there. It was a great experience and exchange of information in both directions. I grew, I learned, I taught. It was a great adventure. But it was a little too chilly for me to live in Cincinnati long term.

What made you want to return to All Children’s as you did last February?

I spent the majority of my career here. This is where my home, my friends, my family are, and thousands of families I had strong connections to from the past. We had done a tremendous amount of good work before, and I saw the opportunity for more good work ahead. My goal in coming back was to make this as safe a place as possible for children and families.

Dr. Bill Greeley, who was charged with rebuilding the program, is a visionary in understanding what it takes. I said if they would allow us to design the rebuild and support it, I think I’ve got gas in the tank to do it. Here we are.

Coming back here, it was our obligation to do the work that we’re trying to do at the very best it can be done. It has been my motto to say, we’re going to do it the best it can be done, every time, for every patient. In the end, you can say all those things, but you really have to perform and earn it. I think we’re starting to get people to recognize that we can do the work at a very high level. The families are coming through and kids are leaving with really great outcomes. All we want is a chance to do that and earn their trust back. I think we’re well on our way.