Dr. Debra Isaac, BN’84, MD’87
International Career Achievement Award
Dr. Debra Isaac is co-founder of the Guyana Program to Advance Cardiac Care (GPACC), a global health training environment that benefits UCalgary learners and faculty and those in Guyana; cardiologist with a subspecialty interest in echocardiography, heart failure and cardiac transplantation.
It was the baby pictures that always got to her.
Seven years ago, photos of blue and swollen tots were a bellwether. But now, when Dr. Debra Isaac, receives images of sickly babies from Guyana, the cardiologist and clinical professor at UCalgary is optimistic. “Today, our well-trained team can get patients to a point where they can have surgery and they will likely continue to grow and develop,” she says.
Like so many other paths to success, Isaac’s swerved one day and that sharp detour changed the course of her life. It was 2011 when a colleague asked if her team at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute could donate a cardiac ultrasound machine to a public hospital in Guyana where this surgeon/researcher was originally from.
Intrigued, yet somewhat skeptical, Isaac took a portable echocardiogram machine to Guyana, only to realize her fears were well-founded.
“I remember having dinner with Guyana’s minister of health when I told him there was no point in leaving this machine in his country when nobody had been trained to use it,” Isaac says. “There might be a nice photo of us and the machine in the paper the next day, but we would not actually be helping anybody.”
By the end of that meeting, Isaac had agreed to design a program that would teach echocardiography to a medical team at the Georgetown Public Hospital. And so began the 12-week training endeavour that has expanded into an eight-month program with ongoing mentorship and learning. According to various colleagues, Isaac is a rare breed — a brilliant cardiologist and inspiring mentor who is relentlessly persuasive. So much so that she was soon able to convince Calgary-based medical experts to take their holiday time in Guyana in order to teach courses which eventually led to the formation of today’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.
During her 30-plus visits to one of South America’s poorest countries, Isaac has also transported numerous donated echo machines from Canada to Guyana, where genetics, poor diet and infrequent exercise contribute to an abnormally high rate of cardiac disease.
If you were to visit Guyana today, a tiny country of less than a million people, you’d find trained nurses, doctors, pharmacists and echotechnicians — all experts in cardiac care. Many have come to Calgary’s Foothills campus to train and study for short periods, just as our medical students, fellows and residents have practised there.
But Isaac can see a day — and it’s not far off — when the team in Guyana will be completley independent. Until that happens, Isaac remains thrilled when she does rounds in Guyana and hears “guys talking about their patients and using specific therapies and making the right diagnoses. They still phone occasionally and ask us to look at an echo, but 90 per cent of what they do, they are doing on their own.”
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