Date: October 1st, 2005
Around the world, the name Myrvin Ellestad is synonymous with groundbreaking work in cardiology. Not surprising – for the past 50 years, Ellestad has been a leader in cardiac research and practice.
But Myrvin Ellestad is more than an esteemed cardiologist. In his native California, he is also known as an author, family man, anthropology buff, active community member, and an all-around great guy.
Indeed, at 84, Myrvin Ellestad is a man who doesn’t sit still. In addition to serving as the Director of the Memorial Heart Institute at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach, California, and maintaining a private cardiology practice, Ellestad finds time to play tennis regularly, travel the world, and spend time with his wife, eight children, and seven grandchildren.
“I find time because I make time,” says Ellestad. “And I don’t require much sleep.”
Even in his youth, Ellestad’s life was a busy one. Growing up in the small town of Auburn, California, Ellestad was involved in track, basketball, skiing, Boy Scouts, and a local dance band. At home, he was responsible for numerous chores, including caring for and selling 250 rabbits. “I had lots of freedom as a kid, but my parents had high expectations. My father believed very strongly that I should have responsibilities,” says Ellestad.
Ironically, Ellestad’s professional ambitions came out of a childhood encounter with forced inactivity. “When I was seven years old, I had a strep infection. The town’s only doctor thought I had kidney disease and a weak heart, and prescribed bed rest for the next several months,” says Ellestad. “Finally another doctor, Max Dunovitz, came to see me and told me there was no reason for me to stay in bed. Needless to say, Max became my hero. I knew I wanted to be a doctor like him when I grew up.”
And indeed he did. Through medical school, a tour of duty as a military doctor, and the development of one of the first ever cardiology practices, Ellestad has made it his life’s work to discover new ways to get patients back on their feet.
As a young physician, Ellestad continually volunteered for new assignments that would give him the chance to learn something new or to discover new treatments. Today, the list of his medical innovations is impressive: one of the first to use bank blood in open heart surgery; developed a method for implantation of permanent pacemakers via the femoral vein; established a laboratory for multi-system evaluation of parameters of aging; and demonstrated the usefulness of using inflammatory markers in chest pain triage.
“I’m proud of fact that I’ve been able to do cardiac research that has made contributions to the field of medicine,” says Ellestad. “I think one of my traits has always been that I constantly look for another answer, another way to solve a problem.”
As a result of his persistent search for new ways to treat patients, Ellestad pioneered the cardiac stress test, a method for assessing heart patients’ ability to exercise and predicting the severity of heart disease. Today, the fifth edition of Ellestad’s book, Stress Testing Principles and Practice, is required reading for cardiology students.
Though his research and his patients have been a focal point in his life, Ellestad gives much of the credit for his success to his wife of 40 years, Lera. “She is an enormous source of strength for me,” says Ellestad. “It can be hard for women whose husbands are doctors because it seems the patients always come first. But Lera has always been very supportive.”
Outside of his medical career, Ellestad has continued to nurture his love of learning. He has traveled the world visiting key anthropological sites, most notably the Galapagos Islands and other sites related to Darwin and the history of evolution. Ellestad’s book, The World and Its Animals, was inspired by these travels, as well as by the curiosity of a bright, 10-year-old granddaughter with a love of learning as strong as his own.
“I like to tell young cardiologists that learning is lifelong,” says Ellestad. “The learning experience is not going to stop when they finish their medical school training. You can learn something from every patient. If you follow that up, you can contribute something new to the knowledge base. I’ve tried to make my own life an example of that.”