When seconds count, Vipul Panchal, M.D., stands ready to perform lifesaving angioplasty

Dr. Panchal, the son of a mechanical engineer and a computer programmer, is known for his work freeing clogged arteries with minimally invasive procedures.

As a young medical resident, Vipul R. Panchal, M.D., brought hot coffee and a stack of electrocardiograms to the hospital bedside of a cardiologist who was undergoing dialysis. Each morning, the doctor shared his hard-earned wisdom with Dr. Panchal, forming a mentorship that helped cement his own journey to become a heart specialist.

Dr. Panchal, 46, is now a highly regarded interventional cardiologist with Norton Heart & Vascular Institute and director of the cardiac catheterization lab at Norton Brownsboro Hospital. His work with balloon angioplasty has earned him a reputation for expert, compassionate, patient-centered care.

“When you think back to your mentors, people who have taken time to teach you, they always leave you a little pearl in your brain. It’s the accumulation of these little pearls that helps build your medical consciousness,” Dr. Panchal said.

Swooping in to perform angioplasty in the middle of the night

Dr. Panchal, the son of a mechanical engineer and a computer programmer who grew up the suburbs of Detroit, is known for freeing clogged arteries with minimally invasive procedures such as angioplasty. During an angioplasty, a flexible tube, called a catheter, is inserted into an artery in the groin or wrist. A guidewire is threaded through the blood vessel to the clog and then a tiny deflated balloon is placed over the guidewire. The balloon is inflated to reopen the artery. Often, a stent is placed in the blood vessel to keep it open.

The procedure, which has advanced since it was first used in the 1960s, can save a life if performed within hours of a heart attack and is far less invasive than bypass surgery. Many patients can return home the following day.

“In the past, for heart attacks, you’d try and treat someone with medicine in the intensive care unit,” Dr. Panchal said. “But now in the middle of the night you swoop in and physically open up the artery.”

Dr. Panchal earned his medical degree from Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine in Rootstown, Ohio, and completed his internal medicine residency at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis. At the urging of mentors and his parents, who “always thought being a cardiologist had a lot of prestige and helped a lot of people,” Dr. Panchal completed fellowships in cardiovascular disease and interventional cardiology at Krannert Institute of Cardiology in Indianapolis.

Leading the Norton Brownsboro catheterization lab

Dr. Panchal moved to Louisville in 2003. When Norton Healthcare opened Norton Brownsboro Hospital in August 2009, he was asked to create the catheterization (cath) lab program he now oversees. He also helps the facility participate in research studies for new medications.

When he’s not treating patients or rushing off to the hospital in the middle of the night, Dr. Panchal is spending time with his three children, ages 10, 12 and 14, and his wife, Nina Vasavada, M.D., a nephrologist he met in medical school.  He also builds wood projects in his basement workshop, plays the ukulele and saxophone, and can be found on a pair of ice skates playing in a hockey league, which he called “a nice way to get rid of your stress.”

And his job can certainly be stressful.

“People arrive [at the hospital] in all states — some people are coding, some on life support,” he said, adding that it’s also rewarding. “It’s a time when you can have such a big impact in a person’s life.”

He said increasing public awareness about the benefits of a good diet, exercise and quitting smoking — along with advances in new cholesterol medications and procedures such as angioplasty — has helped reduce the death rate from heart disease. Nationally, that rate fell from about 520 deaths per 100,000 Americans in 1969 to 169 in 2013.

But heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States. And Kentucky had the eighth highest death rate from cardiovascular disease in the nation in 2015, according to the American Heart Association. Yet, it’s not just the unfit or unhealthy who have heart disease.

Fast heart care when seconds count

Dr. Panchal cited a cautionary example of one of his patients, a middle-aged man who had just returned from a cycling trip in France and was hit with a heart attack.

“Nobody is immune to risk for heart disease, no matter how much you take care of yourself. So you can’t ignore those symptoms,” he said, which can include chest congestion, radiating pain, heartburn or lightheadedness.

It’s best to get medical attention right away, he said, since quickly treating heart attacks is critical to survival and limiting damage to the heart.

To speed treatment, many local EMS crews carry technology that allows heart attack victims’ test results to be transmitted to Norton Healthcare emergency rooms and doctors remotely for assessment while the patient is en route to the hospital.

Norton Heart & Vascular Institute

More patients in Louisville and Southern Indiana seek care at Norton Heart & Vascular Institute than any other provider in the area.

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“I live so close that often I get to the hospital before the patient does. So we can be there waiting for them, helping them off the ambulance to get the care they need,” Dr. Panchal said, stressing that with all that help available it’s safer to call 911 than try to drive a loved one to a hospital. “It’s really one of the things I try to get out there: Call 911. Let us do the work.”

That sense of care, especially when families are at their most frightened and vulnerable after a heart attack, also has brought Dr. Panchal high marks from patients. He strives to get to know them — asking, for example, what they do with their grandchildren, which doubles as a way to get a picture of a patient’s physical capacities.

“Making patients comfortable and feel a part of the process is important, and that’s something I take great measures to do,” he said.

At Norton Brownsboro Hospital, Dr. Panchal has collected enough pearls of medical wisdom to share his own lessons with others.

“Teaching keeps you honest, because you have to know your stuff. And I appreciate every one of my mentors who have done that for me,” he said.

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