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Profile Spotlight

Christopher Barnett, MD, MPH, Director, Cardiovascular ICU

As an earnest young man, Christopher Barnett’s reason for pursuing medicine was pure—and familiar. Like many medical students, he wanted to do something meaningful with his life and help people. With many career choices, the dream fades a bit as reality bites along the way, but happily for Dr. Barnett, his youthful enthusiasm for good works has been realized time and time again.

Time spent caring for patients at San Francisco General Hospital was filled with moments of real satisfaction. As an associate professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the critical care cardiologist cared for the city’s most marginalized residents.

“It’s a county hospital providing services for the poorest of the poor in a very affluent city,” he explains. “Every day I felt that I was doing something important for people who really needed me. And at the end of the day I always felt good with what I had accomplished.”

Now thousands of miles away from the California coast, Dr. Barnett is discovering that same sense of purpose as part of the MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute (MHVI) team at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “The Hospital Center takes care of some of the most challenging cardiovascular cases in the nation. It’s a fantastic mix of academic medicine, clinical excellence and innovative care delivery,” he says. “It also provides care to a wide range of people—some of whom are the neediest among us. I like feeling part of this kind of community. I even bought a home in the neighborhood.”

Unique Combo: Critical Care & Cardiology

Dr. Barnett is one of just a handful of physicians with fellowship training in both cardiology and critical care. He is heading up the new cardiovascular ICU in the recently opened Heart & Vascular Hospital at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “The new facility is a beautiful space, which has been designed to streamline care and foster efficiency. It’s unlike any other ICU I’ve seen with its large windows and light,” he says.

“The way the service has been structured encourages professional collaboration across specialties—and a novel approach to care that benefits patients,” he adds. Dr. Barnett’s appointment comes with the development of an independent Department of Critical Care Medicine, and the integration of cardiology and critical care within MHVI. “We treat some of the sickest patients—those with assist devices and advanced heart failure. This state-of-the-art ICU is devoted to their complex needs, and brings together critical care and cardiovascular expertise.”

Two Hats

Dr. Barnett, who headed up the Pulmonary Hypertension Program at San Francisco General, and has a lengthy resume of research in the disease to his credit, is also serving as the director of the Pulmonary Hypertension Program at the Hospital Center.

“There is a large population of patients—many who go undiagnosed. Like cardiovascular disease, pulmonary hypertension is a complex disorder that takes experience to recognize and treat. But despite the complexities of these problems, we are fortunate to have very effective therapies,” he adds. “And in the end, all of our technological and pharmaceutical sophistication is still focused on the simple goal of helping people.”

Language Not a Barrier - Jose Vargas, MD, PhD

The eighth grader came to the United States from the Dominican Republic not knowing any English. But just a few years later, he was named a Rhodes Scholar. “On my first day of school, a kid at the bus stop asked me if I were new,” Jose Vargas, MD, PhD, recalls. “I had to ask my mother to translate.”

In the Dominican Republic, Jose Vargas’s family was happy, but his parents, a social worker and a psychologist, relocated to the U.S. when their four children were teens to give them better educational opportunities. Dr. Vargas was 13.

While learning English on the fly, Dr. Vargas says because his parents were strong advocates of education, he had a sense early on that perseverance and hard work would pay off. It did. After a year in English as a Second Language classes, he moved to a bridge program at Magruder High School in Montgomery County, Maryland. By 11th grade, he was in regular classes, and as a senior was taking AP courses. Nevertheless, he says, “I started the race pretty late.” He laughs now at some of the issues he encountered. “In the bridge program, our textbooks all had a larger font. Like they thought that would make it easier!”

His teachers had noticed his exceptional abilities and aptitude in science, and selected him for a Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s summer internship at the nearby National Institutes of Health (NIH). “The first person I met was Dr. Michael Gottesman, director of intramural research,” Dr. Vargas says. “He was a fantastic mentor and introduced me to other great mentors. I worked there during summers while an undergraduate at Loyola College in Baltimore.”

Although research was still top of mind, Dr. Vargas was interested in medicine, too. Not many people are faced with this dilemma: acceptance to Harvard Medical School AND a Rhodes and a Marshall Scholarship. (He was the first Loyola student to win a Rhodes Scholarship.) He opted for the Rhodes, and Harvard allowed him to defer medical school while he pursued a PhD in Functional Genetics.

While at Oxford University, he worked on several research projects that involved DNA sequencing, a field in its infancy at the time. “We experimented with worms, fruit flies and frog eggs, in which we inserted genetic information that changed the development of the organisms. Human genome sequencing was starting to become available, and we wanted to identify ways to ascribe functions to human genes based on experiments on these model organisms.”

After Oxford, Dr. Vargas earned his Harvard medical degree and then completed a residency in Internal Medicine and fellowship in Cardiology at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He joined MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in 2013 with a 60/40 split between clinical work and research. He currently is working on several research projects at NIH. He is passionate about diversifying the current genomics landscape. “Although the vast majority of genetic studies performed to date focus on patients of European descent,” he explains, “we are finding more and more that the conclusions from those studies can vary greatly depending on ancestry. In fact, understanding a patient’s genomic background is proving to be important for assessing disease risk, and is crucial for personalized medicine. Through generations our genomes interact with our environment and alter how our bodies manifest different diseases. We are just beginning to understand the impact this has on disease and the risk for different populations. It is a fascinating time in medicine right now. In 10 years, things will be very different.”