After a decades-long career in cardiothoracic surgery, Dr. Angelo Vlessis retired earlier this year, closing a long and impactful chapter at St. Charles.

Over the past 25 years, Vlessis built the health system’s cardiac surgery program from the ground up, hiring and training the skilled staff that remains today.

“For the last 20+ years, he was synonymous with heart surgery in Central Oregon,” said Dr. Matthew Slater, St. Charles’ chief of cardiothoracic surgery, who met Vlessis during their residencies at Oregon Health & Science University in the early 1990s. “He was always a mentor to me.”

Growing up with a chemistry set and microscope, Vlessis was hooked on science from a young age. Although he initially pursued plant physiology, his interests turned to general surgery in graduate school. Cardiothoracic surgery stood out as the most exciting of the surgery specialties, he said, because the practice is peppered with more life-and-death situations.

“Every day or week, there were exciting moments,” Vlessis said. “People come in all the time half-dead, and you operate on them and have the opportunity to save them.”

After finishing his residency at the University of Michigan in 1997, Vlessis worked as an attending cardiothoracic surgeon at St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland. He did several rotations at St. Charles throughout the 1990s before settling in for his first long-term position in 1999. After a two-year return to Portland to work as a professor of cardiovascular surgery at OHSU, he returned to St. Charles in 2016, where he operated until his retirement.

“Without him, we wouldn’t really have a program,” Slater said. “It’s not just about doing the surgery. Dr. Vlessis had to build all the platforms to support it.”

Because Central Oregon is relatively isolated, Vlessis filled a gap in much-needed cardiothoracic care when he arrived. Among his roughly 7,000 patients through the years, some came from as far as northern California or southern Washington.

Part of his legacy, Slater said, is that Vlessis provided consistent care for so long. At many medical centers, quality of care ebbs and flows as physicians come and go, but that was not the case at St. Charles while Vlessis was on staff.

“His prolonged presence allowed the cardiac surgery program to grow and strengthen,” Slater said. “He’s built a really stable platform.”

Another significant mark Vlessis made in Central Oregon is the impact of his mitral valve repair practice. The mitral valve is vital for moving blood in the right direction through the heart, and some genetic conditions can cause it to malfunction. Many surgeons choose to replace the valve with an artificial one; Vlessis specialized in repairing the valve instead of replacing it.

As for the most rewarding part of his career? Vlessis said it’s when he runs into patients away from the operating table.

“Maybe I'll have dinner at a restaurant, and the waitress will notice my last name and say, ‘Oh, you operated on my dad. You saved his life. Thank you,’” he said. “The appreciation that you get in a smaller community … is probably the most rewarding part about working here.”

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