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September 18, 2013

Help is a heart beat away

VALDOSTA — Whether it’s mild chest pains or a serious heart attack, you need to be sure that you can get the help you need right here in Valdosta. And thanks to two young physicians, you can.

Dr. Sidney Staton and Dr. Doug Luke are cardiologists practicing with South Georgia Medical Associates. Both are from the south Georgia area originally and both are young, energetic, demanding, and dedicated to their patients.

Dr. Staton, originally from Morven, graduated from Brooks County public schools, earned a biology degree from Valdosta State University in 1999 and graduated from medical school at Mercer University in 2003. He trained at Wake Forest and at Univ. of Fla. in Gainesville for general and interventional cardiology.

Dr. Luke, originally from Fitzgerald, graduated from Fitzgerald High School, earned at least three associates degrees from ABAC, transferred to the Univ. of Georgia where he graduated in 2006 magna cum laude with a degree in biology before attending medical school at Mercer, and training at the University of Alabama/ Birmingham and Univ. of Fla. for general and interventional cardiology.

The two met initially at Mercer, where Dr. Staton was preparing to graduate and Dr. Luke was in his first year. When they both ended up in Gainesville, Fla., together, Dr. Staton did a full court press to convince Dr. Luke to come join his practice in Valdosta.

“I had no desire to go to Atlanta, where they’ve got plenty of cardiologists and it’s a very tough, competitive market. I thought I’d have more of an opportunity to do a lot more if I came here,” said Dr. Luke.

After working with a cardiologist in Macon during medical school, he saw what kind of impact he could have on patients.

“Most of the patients we see here are in dire straits. Whether it’s due to a lack of education, prevention programs, denial, or personal habits, they’re generally very sick when we first see them. It’s much more challenging as a physician,” Dr. Luke said.

Dr. Staton, accustomed to working about 100 to 120 hours a week, having a partner is easing his pace down a little bit, but with two physicians, they are also able to see more patients.

“Now, though, one of us can be at the hospital and one at the office seeing patients, so we’re able to do more,” said Staton.

The cardiologists treat heart disease in all stages, perform heart catherizations, and angioplasties, and consult with the heart surgeons when open heart surgery or other more invasive procedures are necessary.

“Some patients come to us in the early stages of heart disease, either because they know they’re at risk from family history or they’ve already had a scare,” said Luke.

Even though they can help patients who have already had a mild heart attack in the hopes of preventing another one, if patients don’t change their personal habits, there’s not much they can do. One of the biggest causes of heart problems that the physicians see here in south Georgia is smoking.

“It’s amazing how many people can justify paying $5 per pack and smoke two packs a day, but they claim they don’t have the money to see a doctor,” said Staton.

The physicians say that people also have a tendency to ignore symptoms until it’s too late. “They’ll come into the office and say they’re fine, and by the time they leave, we’ve told them they’ve got hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, etc. They think they’re fine, but they’re not,” said Luke.

They see patients who’ve felt bad for months or even years, who’ve slowed down or stopped doing various activities, and by the time they seek medical help, it may be too late.

“People always say, ‘Well, I’m just getting old,’ but if you’re hurting or not doing what you normally would, that’s not just aging and you need to see someone,” said Staton.

Another issue the cardiologists see often is that there are so many people today with heart stents, it’s considered to not be a big deal anymore. But it is.

“There are only so many stents we can do on a person, and stents don’t cure everything,” said Staton.

Even with stents or other heart procedures, “you can be trading one medical problem for another. You’ve got a whole new set of medications and complications that can occur if you don’t also change your behavior,” said Luke.

Behaviors such as eating too much fatty, greasy food, being overweight, smoking, ignoring high blood pressure, not getting enough exercise, and not taking medications as prescribed can all lead to the emergency room, and ultimately, one of the cardiologists.

Thankfully, according to the two physicians, there are several cardiologists in town who all work together well, along with the cardio surgeons.

“We confer on tough cases, and we have very collegial relations with them and a lot of support.”

For Staton, it was a personal issue to return to the area.

“I wanted to take care of the community that raised me. I see patients whose kids I went to school with or who are relatives of mine, which can be both a blessing and a curse, but I care about them,” said Staton.

“One of my jobs when I was in school was cutting meat at Publix. Somebody told me then that if you make a mistake cutting meat, you just grind your mistakes away. If you make a mistake on a patient, you bury them,” Staton said. “I may be demanding, but there is no room for errors in what we do.”

For Luke, the most rewarding part of being a cardiologist is patient care, taking care of families, and knowing that at their weakest moments, you can help that patient maintain their dignity. “It’s gratifying and humbling at the same time.”

For Staton, the rewards are the same but there are many sacrifices as well. With a young family of two children and one on the way, his wife, Stacie, has to be very understanding.

But for those with heart problems in south Georgia, having the two cardiologists here means that help is only a heart beat away.

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