Splitting Time, Saving Lives

Local work had global implications

“Here (in Canada), sometimes we’re more oriented to treatment and less to prevention.”

In July 2001, Dr. Delfin Rodriguez Leyva visited Winnipeg for the first time to attend and make a presentation at the World Congress of the International Society for Heart Research, the largest cardiac research event ever to be held in the city. A few months later, he was working here.

Born and raised in Cuba, his English was poor, but in Winnipeg he made rich and lasting connections with St. Boniface Hospital researchers because of their mutual interest in cardiac care – an interest that transcends language.

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At the conference, Dr. Rodriguez made a presentation about his efforts to build a technology-driven national cardiology network in Cuba. The network was designed to improve information-sharing and to conserve system resources. “We were one of the first countries in the world to have that kind of technology at the end of the nineties based on an Internet connection,” says Dr. Rodriguez of his pioneering work.

He connected with Dr. Grant Pierce, Executive Director of Research at St. Boniface Hospital, and expressed interest in the clinical research happening in Winnipeg. Within months, a formal relationship was struck and Dr. Rodriguez has been splitting his time between Winnipeg and Holguin ever since. Clinical work in Cuba; research work in Winnipeg.

“I left Cuba and it was plus 36 degrees. I arrived here it was minus 42 degrees,” recalls Dr. Rodriguez of his December 2001 arrival. “I arrived here at Winnipeg Airport with a suit and thankfully Dr. Pierce was carrying a big, big winter coat with him that saved my life.”

Of course if it only took a coat to save a life, medicine would be rather easy. Dr. Rodriguez’s passion is saving lives through research, technology, and translating new knowledge into new practice.

For Dr. Rodriguez, the key is prevention of disease, a primary principle of Cuba’s respected medical system. The Cuban system even assigns people to go from house to house to ask questions and assess people’s risk for various chronic diseases.

“Here (in Canada), sometimes we’re more oriented to treatment and less to prevention,” explains Dr. Rodriguez of the differences between the systems. That said, he is seeing a shift in North American medicine “moving towards the area of being more preventive, being more involved with lifestyle modification, physical activity, proper diet, and keeping normal body weight.”

Since arriving at St. Boniface Hospital, Dr. Rodriguez has become particularly interested in the role of nutrition in disease prevention and treatment and has been actively involved with Dr. Pierce’s work on flaxseed and high blood pressure.

Another key area of investigation for Dr. Rodriguez is finding ways to help the global medical community to move new knowledge into practice more quickly. This is from a man who became a doctor at 24, established a national cardiology network in Cuba in a matter of a few years, and decided to plant some roots in Winnipeg five months after his first visit. (When things are supposed to happen, he likes when they happen quickly.)

“We have brilliant scientists and they are developing a great new knowledge in the area of the cardiovascular treatments and diagnosis. Sometimes it takes too long for us to be able to deal with the new advances and move then into the real practice of medicine,” he says of the global challenge. “One of the main areas that we’re trying to develop right now is that kind of translation of cardiology. It means we want the new developments in the basic area to be moving faster into the clinical area so we can use them to prevent disease and to treat our patients in a better way. By doing that, we’ll reduce mortality. We make people live longer – not only live, but with a better quality of life if they survive a cardiovascular event.”

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Also of special interest to Dr. Rodriguez is the potential of non-invasive diagnostic technologies to provide doctors with accurate and in-depth information with minimal risk to the patient. The most exciting part of this is Dr. Rodriguez’s work with wearable devices for high-risk patients. Rapid advances in wearable device technology mean that home-worn devices can measure and transmit real-time information about heart rate, oxygen saturation, electrical activity in the heart, and more. Much more information than even a few years ago.

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“Our idea is to try to show that by wearing some of these devices we can prevent mortality in high-risk patients,” says Dr. Rodriguez. For example, “we have a patient that we know will develop a heart attack sometime in the future because they have some variables that we know are associated with heart attacks. By using some of the information that is provided in real time by the wearable devices, we can know when that heart attack will be, and we can prevent it.”

With certain patients wearing long-term devices and transmitting real-time data into the cloud, Dr. Rodriguez and his colleagues are poised to decrease mortality and increase life expectancy by decreasing the incidence of acute events. It’s a remarkable use of technology that holds tremendous promise.

That potential, along with the opportunity to work with outstanding partners at St. Boniface Hospital, certainly make Dr. Rodriguez’s demanding commute easier to accept.

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