Doctor almost didn’t accept position

As UPMC Altoona marks the 25th anniversary of its first open heart surgery the cardiac surgeon who has lead the program for all 25 years almost never came to Altoona.

After Altoona Hospital announced in April 1988 that it would begin the program, James Barner, chief operating officer and the administrative team had to find surgeons to run the program.

Officials had recruited Dr. Burt Fazi, then 32, who had completed his general surgical residency and cardiothoracic surgery residency at Allegheny General Hospital but wanted someone with more experience to head the program.

Barner, who had been searching countrywide, asked Fazi if he had any suggestions of who he could find to lead the program – and Fazi suggested Dr. John Anastasi, under whom Fazi was a junior resident at AGH.

Anastasi had recently become chairman of the thoracic surgical division of the Canton Heart Institute at Aultman Hospital in Canton, Ohio.

“I loved where I was, I loved the practice, I was happy as can be.”

I had just become a partner in the practice and had moved into a 16-acre horse farm, a beautiful farm and home. I had not even unpacked,” Anastasi recalled.

Both Fazi and Barner contacted Anastasi about coming to Altoona.

“Jim Barner called to come to Canton to talk to me. I told him you are wasting your time. I was thinking he would never show up. A week later he was in my office. I still wasn’t interested. He told me they were in a difficult spot, and they had to do open heart surgery by Sept. 7 or lose their certificate of need,” Anastasi said.

Altoona Hospital kept increasing their offer, so Anastasi decided to take a look.

“I told Jim I was going to New York (he is a native of Long Island) to visit my family. I would drive through Altoona and if we liked what we saw I would take the time to stop and talk. We got off at Milesburg. I said to my wife (Cathy) there is no way we are staying here. When we got closer to Altoona things were looking better,” Anastasi said.

The Anastasis then met with Barner, Dr. Marvin Meisner, who was director of cardiology and Albert Knauss, chief executive officer at Justine’s Restaurant in Hollidaysburg.

“It started to look more interesting. I said to Cathy they are providing us with a huge two-year guarantee win or lose. We had never heard of Altoona. We would stay two years and go back to New York. I never imagined Altoona would be the place I would spend more years of my life than anywhere else. There was no way we knew this practice would be so successful and patients would embrace it the way they did. We have been incredibly busy. It made it virtually impossible to leave,” Anastsai said.

Barner is glad officials were able to convince Anastasi to come to Altoona.

“He has done an excellent job in providing many positive results in doing open heart surgery for patients. He has provided the leadership for the entire team and it has evolved into a very successful program,” Barner said.