Not only do you have to specialize in the heart, but you have to have a big heart to be a pediatric cardiologist. Carmel Valley’s Dr. Paul Grossfeld is always willing to lend a helping hand — even when he’s not at work.
“It’s incredibly gratifying,” said Grossfeld, a board-certified pediatric cardiologist at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego and a clinical professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine.
Grossfeld and his wife, Susan, lead an annual cardiac surgical mission to the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
The volunteer project began a decade ago, while the couple was on a vacation in Thailand. Susan Grossfeld had planned a surprise side-trip to the hospital in the Southeast Asian country.
“She didn’t tell me where, but she told me to bring my stethoscope,” Grossfeld said with a laugh.
So after touring the temples of Angkor Wat, the pair toured the teaching hospital, which Grossfeld said at the time was the only freestanding teaching children’s hospital in the country. And after doing so, they wanted to help the hospital build a cardiology program.
“It was an incredibly eye-opening experience,” he said. “It was kind of heartbreaking. They literally had a list of 1,000 children that they kind of followed futilely because they really didn’t have anything to offer, in terms of surgery.”
After returning to Carmel Valley, the couple immediately began making calls. And soon after, they led their first cardiac surgical mission to the hospital in Cambodia.
The couple last led a 16-person volunteer team during Thanksgiving 2014, when they performed about 15 heart surgeries. They plan to return to Cambodia this summer.
Since their first mission, they have performed about 150 surgeries, including open-heart surgeries. They have also trained medical staff at the hospital in Cambodia.
“They have been truly life-saving surgeries,” said Grossfeld, who has been married for 13 years. The couple have a 9-year-old son Stefan, a third grader at Solana Highlands.
After earning his medical degree at the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine in 1992, Grossfeld went on to complete his pediatrics residency training in 1995 at UCSD, followed by a four-year pediatric cardiology fellowship also at UCSD. He joined the university’s faculty in 1999.
Unlike his work in Cambodia, Grossfeld credits certain aspects of his career to chance.
As a fourth-year medical student in Dallas, Grossfeld decided to do rotations in Colorado, where he grew up, and in San Diego.
“It was complete serendipity,” said Grossfeld, who has lived in San Diego for nearly 24 years and Carmel Valley for more than 12. “The only rotation they had available was pediatric cardiology. I always remember this because I was actually disappointed. I actually wanted to do a rotation in pediatric infectious disease. But that turned out to be an incredible rotation.”
Led by whom became his mentor, the month-long rotation in San Diego changed Grossfeld’s career path.
“Life is full of serendipity,” said Grossfeld, noting that he didn’t even decide to go into pediatrics until the middle of his third year of medical school.
As a pediatric cardiologist, Grossfeld treats mostly pediatric patients, but also adult patients with congenital heart disease. Also a researcher, he directs a science research laboratory at UCSD dedicated to studying genetic causes of congenital heart disease.
“When something that I do in my research, based initially on a patient, allows us to make progress or discoveries that can then be translated back to helping patient care — I think that’s incredibly gratifying,” Grossfeld said. “You’re helping people in ways that are utilizing cutting-edge, state-of-the-art research insights.”
Along with his clinical and research responsibilities, Grossfeld also directs the pediatric cardiology fellowship program and is actively engaged in teaching fellows, residents and medical students.
“It’s a juggling act,” said Grossfeld, who also serves as a cardiology consultant for the United States men’s and women’s volleyball teams. “No two days in a row are alike, which keeps it pretty interesting.”
Grossfeld’s interest in rare genetic syndromes stems back to his residency training in the mid-1990s.
During his first month of training at UCSD, Grossfeld took care of a patient with Jacobsen syndrome. Also known as 11q terminal deletion disorder, Jacobsen syndrome is a rare congenital condition caused by a loss of genetic material from chromosome 11. This gene loss leads to multiple challenges, such as congenital heart disease, intellectual disability, developmental and behavioral problems and slow growth.
“Literally in his paper chart was a copy of the original case report of Jacobsen syndrome,” Grossfeld said. “I realized that the very rare disorder could give us insights into not just Jacobsen syndrome, but very likely a much broader part of the population that has congenital heart disease. That looks like it’s turning out to be the case.”
Today, Grossfeld serves as the chief medical advisor for the 11q Research and Resource Group, a support group for families and friends of children with Jacobsen syndrome. Founded in 1998, the organization hosts conferences so families can come together, meet with experts and learn about the latest research. The group became a nonprofit organization in 2005.
The 2016 11q Research and Resource Group Conference will be held June 26-30 in San Diego.
“It’s great for the families because it’s such a rare disorder that these families are alone most of the time,” Grossfeld said.
Jacobsen syndrome affects 1 in 100,000 newborns, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Having become a go-to person on the condition, often times, Grossfeld receives emails from families around the world seeking information.
“That’s really gratifying,” Grossfeld said. “In some cases, it’s led to lives being saved.”
For more about Grossfeld’s research and volunteer efforts, visit www.littleheartsbighopes.org.