VALDOSTA -- The man hired just 20 months ago to lead South Georgia Medical Center's open heart surgery program and the establishment of the Dasher Memorial Heart Center resigned Friday.

James McGahee, chief executive officer of the medical center, said Stephen Lincoln, M.D., did not provide specific reasons why he was leaving, just eight months after renewing his one-year contract.

"His leaving had to do with personal reasons, and Dr. Lincoln did not elaborate on those," McGahee said.

With the heart center fully operational, McGahee said Lincoln, who was board certified in cardio-thoracic surgery, and his family simply decided to return home to Maryland, where Lincoln is credited with building the heart program at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Baltimore into one of the largest in the state.

Lincoln could not be reached for comment.

Lincoln left without a severance package or hard feelings, McGahee said. His contract contained a provision allowing him and hospital officials to mutually terminate it at any time, and McGahee said that's what happened. Lincoln was paid for the eight months he worked in 2002 and left the area, McGahee said.

Tuesday, the Dasher Memorial Heart Center's new leaders -- Thomas J. Bixler, II, M.D., FACS; Julian E. Hurt, M.D., FACS; and David L. Saint, M.D., FACS of the Cardiac, Vascular, and Endovascular Surgery Center of Tallahassee, Fla. -- will assume the helm. The three-physician medical practice was listed among the original finalists for the position in 2000, McGahee said.

McGahee said he visited the Florida-based practice and asked the men if they were still interested in the job. Their answer was yes.

"Many citizens in the area are familiar with these doctors," McGahee said. "Many have had surgery done by them and will view this change as a positive extension of the program."

McGahee said a board-certified surgeon from the group will be in Valdosta all day, every day, to meet the open heart surgery needs of Valdosta and the surrounding area.

SGMC received approval for an open heart center from the state health planning agency in mid-1999. The first surgery was performed in the spring of 2001.

Since then, 68 cardiac surgeries and 221 interventional procedures, including angioplasty and/or angioplasty with stent placements, have been performed at the Dasher Memorial Heart Center.

To contact reporter Jessica Pope, please call 244-3400, ext. 255.

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