February 17, 2016

Q&A with Cleveland Clinic’s New Chair of Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery

Dr. Hani Najm brings a distinctly global perspective

Hani Najm, MD

Spend a few minutes with Hani Najm, MD, and the word “cosmopolitan” is likely to come to mind. The cardiothoracic surgeon trained in the Middle East and Canada and practiced for the past 16 years in Saudi Arabia. He serves in leadership roles for numerous heart and surgery societies across the Middle East, Asia and Europe. He travels incessantly to teach, having delivered more than 300 international lectures to date. And now his travels have brought him to Cleveland Clinic, where he took on the position of Chairman of Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery at the start of 2016.

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Consult QD recently caught up with Dr. Najm to pose a few questions about how his singularly international perspective informs his cardiac surgery practice.

Dr. Najm at a Glance

Q: What are your primary clinical interests?

A leading interest of mine is heart surgery in newborns, particularly procedures for defects such as complex single ventricles and complex transpositions. Basically whatever is needed in the first few weeks of life. Another interest is surgery for adult congenital disease, which involves a growing population that comes back after initial repair with problems that many adult surgeons are hesitant to take on. At Cleveland Clinic I will be doing both pediatric congenital repairs and operations in adult congenital patients.

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Q: What drew you to Cleveland Clinic, in light of your established career in Saudi Arabia?

I was approached by Cleveland Clinic. It was a difficult decision to let go of my career in Saudi Arabia, but just about any heart surgeon in the world would want to be part of the staff at Cleveland Clinic if asked. As a cardiac surgeon, I’ve always felt I may be the last resort for my patients, and that’s even more the case at a renowned institution like this.

Q: You belong to over a dozen medical and surgical associations across the globe, holding leadership positions in many of them. How much of that involvement will you be able to maintain now?

I will continue as many of these positions as I can. I enjoy the personal relations with leaders of other societies and find it gratifying to help energize these associations. We transformed the Saudi Heart Association from a local society with only 500 attendees at its meeting to a dynamic group that now regularly draws 4,000 to 5,000 attendees. I’ve seen similar results with other societies I’m involved with. It’s not every physician’s cup of tea, and the commitment and travel can be daunting, but I tend to thrive on it.

Q: Does your exposure to pediatric heart surgery at the global level offer up any lessons for U.S. surgeons?

I wouldn’t say there are lessons to be learned, but an advantage of practicing abroad is that the limited clinical resources and expertise in many parts of the world give the available surgeons there the chance to build considerable volume-based experience. I’ve done more than 250 arterial switch procedures so far, a number that few U.S. cardiac surgeons come close to. In Saudi Arabia I had about 200 children waiting for surgery at any given time. Such volume allows you to build expertise in unusual cases, such as a 1.7-kg infant needing an arterial switch, which I performed soon before leaving Saudi Arabia. That type of experience base will help us further enhance Cleveland Clinic Children’s capacity to handle the most highly complex pediatric heart surgery cases.

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Q: Are there lessons from your personal life you find especially helpful on the professional side?

I’ve been a practitioner of tae kwon do for many years and won Saudi Arabia’s national championship three years in a row. I’ve found tae kwon do’s lessons about self-control, target achievement, and the connections between mind, body and soul to be invaluable as a surgeon and physician leader. It’s the key to my endurance when balancing international travel for lectures and meetings with the demands of the operating room.

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