Dr. Dennis Mello
By: PATRICIA GANNON
No one ever has to plead with Dr. Dennis Mello to have a heart. It's an absolute necessity in his business, literally and figuratively.
As a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon, he often delivers the most serious diagnoses for the most fragile of patients. It's a job he does well, for a number of reasons.
"I took congenital heart surgery and was almost finished with the study when my first son was born requiring congenital heart surgery," said Mello. "It solidified everything. I can look at it (the specialty) from both sides."
"I was fortunate to be where I was."
It also helps that his father was a plumber and for many years, Mello likewise supported himself fixing leaks and valves while still in school. Although he briefly considered ophthalmology, the signposts along the way were clear. "Once, when I was a medical student, I watched a heart surgeon—a pediatric heart surgeon—and that was the moment for me. I always loved to take care of children."
Congenital heart surgeons treat lesions or conditions people are born with, from premature babies to adults. "It's sort of a misnomer," said Mello. "Some patients require further surgeries as adults. They need to be managed, a valve put in, or one degenerates and needs to be changed-- for instance, a baby was born without a valve. Eventually the valve will become too small and require multiple operations. We don't have a valve that lasts forever."
Still other operations are corrective, meaning all the parts of the heart are there, but in disarray. Other patients sometimes have half a heart and will have palliative operations but will never be normal. "Instead of four chambers, they have three," he said. ""It's congenital, not acquired. We make it work well the way it is."
Born in Farmington, Connecticut, just outside of Hartford, Mello was a Yale undergrad and later attended medical school at the University of Connecticut, where he did his surgical residency as well. His cardiac training came later at the University of California in San Francisco, and included two years of adult cardiac studies and two years pediatric cardiac and congenital training—the latter under the trained eye of influential pediatric surgeon Dr. Frank Hanley,
After completing his training, Mello returned to Connecticut as director of Pediatric and congenital surgery at Children's Hospital of Connecticut, and subsequently collaborated in a similar position with another physician at Yale Children's Hospital. He is 44. "But physically, it feels like 69," he laughed. "You go through a lot of schooling, I didn't finish until I was 35 and I've been at this for 10 years.
"The work puts on about 30 years."
Married to an anesthetist and the father of three, Mello was recruited by Ochsner after the post was left vacant after Katrina. "It's a great institution," he said. "I was recruited and came down not only to rebuild, but for the opportunity."
Thus far, Ochsner's new director of pediatric cardiac surgery has also been accorded the opportunity to evacuate. "The storm was interesting," he said, referring to Gustav. "My wife preceded me here, then called and said 'You have to get down here, we have to evacuate.' I slept one night in my new home and had to leave it."
Hurricane season and living out of boxes aside, Mello says New Orleans is a good fit. He likes the friendly people, the different culture, and learning to walk with his head up, not down, like they do in the Northeast. But while he worked on his home in Connecticut, he's resisted the temptation to renovate in New Orleans.
"I've been doing it awhile, plumbing, heating, carpentry, making furniture. I wanted to get settled first. Otherwise, I'd focus on the crown moldings the doors and cabinetry," he laughed. Not only does he use dangerous tools, it's a risk he takes on a regular basis. "I've been doing it a long time," he said. I have a woodshop, and I come home at night and go out and do stuff, you know, get the kids involved. I don't actually pull myself away from the family. It's not like golf."
He also has his eye on Lake Ponchartrain. A former yacht club member back home in Connecticut, he hopes to get his racing sailboat up and running soon.
But first and foremost is growing the premier congenital and pediatric department in the area. "We have a major one to the west, in Houston," he said. "I'd like to dominate the whole Southern Region."
Mello dedicates what little spare room he has in his professional schedule to missionary work in other countries. Every year, he travels to St. Petersburg, Russia, and then to the city of Ascension, in Paraguay. In just ten days time, he'll leave with a medical team, half of which he recruited from Ochsner and half from Connecticut. It's a mission he warms to. "Children in the U.S. have easy access," he explained. "Even in Russia, an unbelievable number die simply because they have no access." Mello volunteers his time and organizes other doctors in his field, then lobbies to the companies that manufacture his sutures and valves. "I'm really passionate about it," he said.
"You'd be surprised, Russia's so backward. They don't put their money and resources back into their people. Paraguay simply has no money."
What doesn't surprise us is Mello is all heart.
Dr. Mello did both Penny's surgeries and boy, was he good! He also repaired Dillon's heart as well as Georgia's and many many other children. I was actually devestated when I learned he moved down to New Orleans last September. Those kids down south sure are lucky. Penny will need additional surgeries eventually and we will have to decide if we want to go to Yale, Boston, or the new guy (girl) at CCMC at the time her next surgery is needed.