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Heart surgeon meets tee time, misses Clinton

By Tom Watkins

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Former President Clinton undergoes heart bypass surgery.

Clinton talks to CNN about his bypass surgery.

A heart surgeon describes the procedure.
Mayo Clinic
Bill Clinton

(CNN) -- If the case of former President Bill Clinton is any example, being a big shot can sure help get a doctor, but it doesn't guarantee first choice.

Dr. O. Wayne Isom said he was at his East Hampton home at 7 a.m. Friday when he got a call from a primary-care practitioner at Westchester Medical Center asking him to accept a patient transfer for emergency coronary surgery.

"I said, 'I'm on vacation,' " Isom recalled in a telephone interview.

"And he said, 'Well, it's an important person.'

"And I said, 'Well, they're all important.' And I had a tee time at 9 o'clock.

"He said, 'Well, they want you.'

"And I said, 'Who is it?'

"And he said, 'I can't tell you. It's an important person.'

"I said, 'If you can't tell me, then I'm going to play golf.' "

At that, the doctor asked Isom, a cardiac surgeon and surgeon in chief at Weill-Cornell Medical Center in New York, whom he would recommend at his sister institution, Columbia-New York Hospital, in Upper Manhattan.

"And I said, 'I'd select Craig Smith,' " the chairman of the division of cardiac surgery.

Isom said his recommendation "probably had an influence" in Clinton's decision to go with Smith.

Recommending others can be tough for cardiac surgeons, who generally hold themselves in high regard, he said.

"If you ask a real good cardiac surgeon to name the top three heart surgeons of all time, they'll have trouble naming the other two," he said.

That's not necessarily bad, he said.

"You want somebody -- when they go through those double doors in surgery -- that thinks they're the best," Isom said.

From 1999 through 2001, two of the 175 patients on whom Isom performed a simple coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) died, a 1.14 percent mortality rate, according to figures recently released by the New York State Department of Health.

His patients include CNN talk show host Larry King, who underwent quintuple bypass surgery more than a decade ago.

Smith's record was 12 deaths among 478 patients or 2.51 percent.

At 64, Isom said he can pretty much decide what he wants to do -- and he prefers surgery that includes valve replacements to simple CABG, which Clinton underwent.

"They're a little more complex, and more interesting," he said. "A straightforward CABG is a little bit boring."

Isom, who described himself as a political independent, said he made his 9 a.m. tee off.

"Realistically, if they had told me it was him, I probably would have said, 'Sure, I'd be glad to do it.' I'm not a big fan of his but, as they say, everybody looks the same on the inside," Isom said.

Asked how his game was, he said, "It's a good thing I operate for a living."

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