A leader with heart
Pediatric cardiologist Ira Gessner steps down from admissions duties
By April Frawley Birdwell
It’s just a tube at first, but it beats. It loops, and ventricles emerge. It grows, and the left and right atrium separate into two chambers. A series of intricate steps, and there is a heart, tiny and perfect.
As an undergraduate enrolled in an embryology class at the University of Iowa, Ira Gessner, M.D., was captivated by the human heart and how it develops.
“I thought it a fascinating subject. Embryology is the underpinning of pediatric cardiology,” said Gessner, a UF professor emeritus of pediatrics. “It is hard to understand congenital heart defects if you don’t understand how the heart develops and what can go wrong.”
This early experience eventually led Gessner to a career in pediatric cardiology, a field just emerging when he began his pediatrics residency at UF in 1960.
“When I started there was very little that could be done for a lot of patients, no therapeutic heart catheterizations, few surgeries,” he said. “It was very much starting from scratch.”
After a fellowship in pediatric cardiology, including a research fellowship, in Sweden, Gessner joined the UF College of Medicine faculty in 1965. The field was new, with few pediatric cardiologists in the U.S. Gessner jumped in, eventually leading national committees, studying new treatment methods, publishing papers, editing books on birth defects and co-authoring books on pediatric cardiology and congenital heart defects. By 1972 he was named division chief of pediatric cardiology, the first of many leadership roles that he served.
“His breed is rare because he really trained and practiced pediatric cardiology at a time when we did not have all the tools of imaging, like echocardiograms and MRI, that we use to take care of children,” said F. Jay Fricker, M.D. “He really became the true clinician and teacher that could figure things out without a lot of ancillary testing. That is his legacy. As other imaging and advances occurred, he always maintained the importance of the clinical exam.”
Much has changed in pediatric cardiology since Gessner came to UF. Due to progress in treatment, surgery and technology, children survive many congenital heart defects that were once considered untreatable. Despite the advances in imaging and diagnostic tools, Gessner still takes every opportunity to teach students and residents the art of “auscultation,” using their ears and a stethoscope to make a diagnosis, said Maureen Novak, M.D., director of medical education for the College of Medicine.
But he has had an impact on more College of Medicine students than just those who take his courses or see him with patients. As chair of the College of Medicine Medical Selection Committee for 15 years, Gessner played a role in the lives of nearly 2,000 of the college’s graduates. He recently stepped down from that role and was honored at an August reception.
“Every class has a personality. It is interesting,” Gessner said. “But the end result is the same. Our students are way above average nationally, in terms of their ability and outcomes. I am proud to be a part of that.”
Today, at 80, Gessner still sees patients and still teaches classes in both physical diagnosis and physiology. As for what comes next? He’s not sure. He plans to continue his practice and teaching, but eventually hopes to do more writing —he’s good at it — and visit France. The country holds a special place in his heart. He was a flight surgeon for the U.S. Air Force there between his internship and pediatrics residency at UF. It’s where he met his wife.
“We were married there,” he said. “She was working for the military, living in Paris. I love Paris, I still do. I would move back there today if it was practical.”