Local cardiac surgeon finds satisfaction in healing hearts

Dr. James R. Scharff

By Patricia Corrigan, Special to the Jewish Light

Dr. James R. Scharff, a native St. Louisan, hails from a long line of insurance salesmen, but when it came time to choose a profession, Scharff opted to become a heart surgeon.

“The profession and I chose each other,” says Scharff, 36.

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“My entire life, I have been curious as to how things work, and whenever I was given an electronic toy, I would dissect it,” he says. “The good thing about heart surgery is that you can put a heart back together and it will work even better than before.”

Scharff grew up in Ladue and attended St. Louis Country Day School. He received his medical degree from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was chief resident and completed a fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery at St. Louis University Hospital. Currently, Scharff focuses on all aspects of general thoracic and cardiac surgery.

He made time recently to talk about St. Luke’s latest honors and his work.

HealthGrades, an independent healthcare ratings organization, gave the highest grades to St. Luke’s hospital for cardiac surgery services. Can you comment on that?

This award reflects a lot of effort on the part of the hospital as well as the doctors, nurses and staff who provide these services to the community. We’re all very happy about this recognition, and it validates what all of us have felt – that St. Luke’s is an excellent place to work.

What led you into this profession?

I have always had an interest in science, biology in particular, and that often leads one to a medical pathway. In medical school, everything I learned related to the heart was what I was most naturally interested in. For me, heart surgery was like a well-tailored suit that I could pick off the rack and it fit like a glove.

What is it like to operate on a heart?

When you open the chest and expose the beating heart, there is always a moment of exhilaration. Whenever we have visitors in the operating room, I always ask if that is not the coolest thing they ever saw.

How do you approach each surgery?

It’s exhilarating, but frightening, too. I never try to wrap my mind around the whole procedure at once. It is a process, with a beginning, steps in the middle and steps at the end. One of the most satisfying things is knowing that the patients will feel better after surgery.

What is that like for you, when a patient tells you later that they are much improved?

The surgical procedure is rewarding in its technical aspects, actually fixing something, but the fact that people feel better afterward is what it’s all about. That brings wonderful satisfaction.

What is new in heart surgery?

In the last several years, we have adapted the tried and true operations developed in the latter part of the 20th century to meet the needs and desires for patients in the start of the 21st century. I’m excited about this – with small-incision valve surgery, people can now have a heart valve replaced or repaired in a less invasive way, without the standard large incision.

What are the other advantages to the new method?

It makes it easier to recover from surgery and reduces the risks, as well. It’s kind of magic.

What advances are still to come?

There are newer technologies on the horizon – it’s almost scary to think how fast things are changing. If I have 30 years ahead of me to practice, I can only imagine what cardiac surgery will be like 15 or 20 years from now.

What heart health tips can you offer readers?

Don’t smoke and exercise regularly – everyone hears that – but also one of the best things people can do is watch the salt in their diet. Salt has evolved from a flavor enhancer to flavor in and of itself. I always tell people to avoid processed foods – and to be careful with salt.

HealthWatch – Dr. James R. Scharff

WORK: Cardiothoracic surgeon at St. Luke’s Hospital

HOME: University City

FAMILY: Married to Tiffany; three children: Emma, 7; Ben, 5; Lily, 3

HOBBIES: Swims for exercise, hikes and camps with family

PERSONAL ACCOMPLISHMENT: Scharff is part of the team delivering heart health care at St. Luke’s Hospital, which was recently ranked Number 1 in Missouri for cardiac services and the best hospital in St. Louis for cardiac surgery.