VALDOSTA – When Dr. Benjamin Toole first started his medical career, he didn't anticipate being a pediatric cardiologist that would travel through South Georgia for his work, yet he now wouldn't change a thing.
Toole, whose main clinic is based in Albany, works for Sibley Heart Center Cardiology and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. A clinic was opened in Valdosta in 2014 and Toole has been coming down two Wednesdays a month since its inception to see patients.
“There was a need for further care for the kids,” Toole said. “It was not present before I started the job so I started it through my practice. There's a big need for it in South Georgia and in areas that are underserved.”
Patients range from prenatal up to the age of 21 and Toole sees a wide variety of heart disease, from congenital to acquired diseases such as hypertension and high cholesterol.
“I was always fascinated by kids and I love kids and love pediatrics,” Toole said. “Congenital heart disease was just something I was fascinated by in medical school so the combination of that and getting to take care of kids was a good mixture.”
While it may not seem like high cholesterol and other cardiac issues would be prevalent in people younger than the the age of 21, Toole said it's becoming more common due to screen time cutting into physical activity and poor diet.
It can also be genetics as, on occasions, children who have led healthy lifestyles can still have high blood pressure or cholesterol. These cases also tend to be higher in South Georgia and the South in general, Toole said.
Toole said one benefit of being located in South Georgia is he has a lot of patients who need ongoing care post-surgery and this saves them from having to travel back and forth to bigger cities for followups.
“A lot of things cardiologists do and things kids need can be done here in our office and most of them are,” Toole said. “Most of these kids don't require travel outside of the Valdosta area.”
Toole lives in Albany with his family, making his twice-a-month commute to Valdosta fairly easy, but originally saw himself working in a big hospital setting.
However, he found a great deal of satisfaction and ability to have great patient relations in a smaller setting.
“I think medicine is moving more towards that. If you look at major hospitals, they are starting to create hospitals and clinics outside with the goal that, instead of making the patients come to you, you are moving towards the patients,” Toole said.
While this is a move in the right direction, Toole said he thinks there is still a lack of pediatric sub-specialists in these areas but is hopeful that maybe more will move toward these areas in time.
The need is certainly evident as all of Toole's clinics are always full of patients in need, so much so he plans to add another day per month in the area.
“For some people, the distance is a major factor. Just to have someone who can provide the same level of care you get in Atlanta but also open windows to other sub-specialists,” Toole said.
One thing Toole is particularly passionate about is fetal care because, when able to diagnose children that early, he can have everything prepared and ready to go for the birth.
“Babies who have a potentially fatal condition, you're diagnosing them early and their outcomes are infinitely better if they're diagnosed early,” Toole said. “That's one area rural areas don't have as much access to. I'm passionate about continuing to increase that across these areas so babies can be diagnosed before they are born.”
If a pregnant woman has a history of heart disease herself or in her family, or moms who have their babies diagnosed with high risk for some genetic disorders should be evaluated. Toole may also receive referrals when doctors find something of concern with the baby.
“I tell my patients all the time that I know you think 'Hey, I live in a small town in South Georgia and there's no one around me with a child with heart problems' and I can tell you that is not the case,” Toole said. “A little less than 1% of all kids are born with a heart problem and if you think about an area the size of South Georgia, that's a lot of people. You aren't by yourself.”
Toole's office is located at 2418 N. Oak St., inside Valdosta Specialty Clinic. To schedule an appointment, call (404) 256-2593.
Desiree Carver is a reporter at the Valdosta Daily Times. She can be reached at (229) 244-3400 ext. 1215.