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Dr. Andrei Pop, an interventional cardiologist with AMITA Health Medical Group, serves as medical director of the Cardiac Cath Lab at Alexian Brothers Medical Center.
James Foster/Sun-Times

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Dr. Andrei Pop: Saving lives ‘highly satisfying,’ but preventing problems more beneficial

The interventional cardiologist says he’s increasingly more focused on prevention programs than on performing dramatic procedures.

Dr. Andrei Pop doesn’t sweat the Dracula jokes.

Yes, he was born in Transylvania, but Pop has a habit of helping — not causing — cardiac problems. In fact, the 45-year old Romanian-turned-Chicagoan has devoted his career to getting people’s blood pumping better.

Pop is an interventional cardiologist with AMITA Health Medical Group, where he’s served as the medical director of the Cardiac Cath Lab at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village for more than a decade. There, he and his team routinely treat the health problem that quietly kills almost one of every four Americans: heart disease.

Sometimes it’s the kind of race-against-the-clock emergency work portrayed on shows like “Chicago Med,” such as surgeons rushing to install a stent in an artery to save someone who has suffered a major heart attack. But Pop has increasingly found himself focused less on TV-worthy procedures and more on prevention programs.

“It’s highly satisfying to save lives; it’s what drew me to the field. But now a lot of what we do is about extending life or preventing problems from developing in the first place,” he said. “In the end, getting patients to address their risk factors and embrace a healthier lifestyle may actually result in a greater benefit to society than the very dramatic stuff.”

New technology and techniques are also making once complicated heart surgeries more routine as well, Pop said.

“Thirty years ago, patients would spend two weeks in the intensive care unit after surgery, and it would take forever for them to get out of the hospital,” he said. “But because of the way we’re doing things now, they’re recovering much, much quicker and are sometimes able to leave the same day.”

The innovation Pop is most excited about these days is TAVR, which stands for transcatheter aortic valve replacement. It’s a minimally invasive surgery that repairs the heart valve without removing the old, damaged one. It’s considered an effective and less invasive alternative to open heart surgery. The procedure, which received approval from the FDA in 2012, has gained a major spokesman in the form of Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger. Jagger successfully had TAVR performed earlier this year and was back on tour two months later.

Currently, TAVR is only being used for high-risk patients. But once the FDA allows it for anyone it will be a game changer, Pop said.

“This is something that will dramatically change the way we do things,” he said.

Recently, Pop’s structural heart program with AMITA was the first in the state to perform a “Basilica” procedure, a new technique designed to prevent coronary artery obstruction during TAVR — a rare but often fatal complication.

“We’re always looking at ways of doing things more efficiently, better and safer,” he said.

Pop, who moved to Chicago from Romania after med school in 2000, comes from a family of physicians. Both of his grandparents were ophthalmologists. “My grandmother was a professor at a time when not many women were doing that kind of work,” he said.

But what led him to cardiology in particular was his father’s and uncle’s fatal heart attacks a few years apart.

“That together with the fact that I had an incredibly smart and charismatic professor of physiology who was a cardiologist,” Pop said. “He made cardiovascular physiology sound amazing.”

Turns out, the professor was right, Pop said. Being a cardiologist is amazing, even if it’s not quite as sexy as it’s portrayed on television.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. “It’s great to come to work with happy people and people who want to make a difference every day.”

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