Tell-Tale Heart Sounds

Dr. Heather Gornik: ‘If you listen, you’ll hear things.’

Boo wahh, boo wahh, boo wahh. To the average listener, this is the sound that you might hear when holding a conch shell to your ear at the beach. But to Heather L. Gornik, MD, Medical Director of the Non-Invasive Vascular Laboratory at Cleveland Clinic, it’s a cardiac emergency—the sound of blood leaking from a valve in a patient’s heart.

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This was just one amazing anecdote that Dr. Gornik, Cleveland Clinic cardiologist and vascular physician, shared in a recent article by Diane Suchetka in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer newspaper.

When Dr. Gornik listens carefully—which she always does—the beating of someone’s heart or the sound of blood coursing through their arteries often can tell her what’s wrong with them.

“If you listen, you’ll hear things,” Dr. Gornik told The Plain Dealer.

Listening with her heart

Heather Gornik, MD

Heather Gornik, MD

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Dr. Gornik recounts in the article how when she was training as a cardiologist 15 years ago, she would play cassette tapes of different cardiac sounds over and over.

This was the beginning of her immersion in the art and science of identifying the subtle but important differences in tell-tale sounds made by our heart and vascular system when there’s an underlying medical issue.

She has learned a lot since then, not just about listening to patients’ hearts—but listening with her heart. It’s not uncommon for Dr. Gornik to remember personal details about patients’ lives, The Plain Dealer reports. That same attention to detail helps her home in on clinical details that a less attentive listener might miss.

High-tech diagnostics

When Dr. Gornik suspects a vascular or cardiac problem based on the sounds that she hears with her special three-headed stethoscope, the next step often involves high-tech diagnostics such as vascular ultrasounds or cardiac tests to help make a diagnosis. The Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute’s Non-Invasive Vascular Laboratory performs an average of 125 to 150 studies a day of patients’ arteries and veins, and Dr. Gornik’s main focus is diagnosing and treating patients with vascular problems and a rare condition called fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD).

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The Plain Dealer highlights the stories of patients whose lives Dr. Gornik helped change:

  • A patient whose arteries made a swoosh, swoosh, swoosh sound is diagnosed with fibromuscular dysplasia, and she finally is able to obtain much-needed treatment for the condition.
  • A  41-year-old bicyclist with a tell-tale lub du dub, lub du dub heartbeat is diagnosed with holes in her heart that have been there since she was born, and two weeks later, Cleveland Clinic surgeons perform life-changing corrective surgery.

Sometimes all you have to do is listen—and Dr. Gornik knows that better than almost anyone.

Read the full Plain Dealer article here


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