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On Board: Shelby Kutty, Director, the Helen B. Taussig Congenital Heart Center


Shelby Kutty, one of the foremost authorities in multimodality cardiovascular imaging, and his team are also focusing on adult congenital heart disease and cardiac care in the context of genetics, maternal fetal health and oncology.

March 11, 2019

Incorporating the teaching of diverse mentors into his own practice, Shelby Kutty searches within and reaches out.

After interviewing Shelby Kutty, the words, “Slow down, you move too fast, you got to make the morning last,” from the Simon and Garfunkel song come to mind. However, there is no slowing down this mind. An ever-accelerating oomph drives the new director of the Helen B. Taussig Congenital Heart Center and chief of pediatric cardiology—there is much to do.

“It’s clear he has a lot of energy—he’s constantly on the go with one task after another after another,” says Greg Martin, administrator for pediatric cardiology. “He doesn’t look back—he looks to the future.”

The past, however, does have a lot to do with who he is and his approach and vision for the heart center’s future—as well as his passion for taking care of children and young adults. He grew up in Kerala, India, a popular tourist area known for its palm-lined beaches and beautiful backwaters. Indeed, National Geographic Traveler named it one of the world’s top 10 paradises. Kutty, in his youth, knew there was also a dark cloud over Kerala and southern India: a high incidence of rheumatic heart disease, a leading cause of cardiovascular disease among children and young adults in India at that time. Untreated, it can result in disability and even death, which was unfortunately the outcome for his maternal grandmother. Seeing his first cousins, age 12 and 14, succumb to obscure childhood illnesses was also traumatizing.

“Those deaths in my family affected me deeply and inspired me to go into medicine and cardiology and help people,” says Kutty. “Children with heart disease in southern India at that time were totally helpless, with limited resources.”

Searching for solutions, he studied pediatrics, cardiology and cardiac imaging at premier institutions in India, Australia, Canada and the United States. He underwent cardiology training at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Cleveland Clinic, earned a master’s degree in health care management from Harvard University, and became a Wharton School scholar and vice chair for pediatrics and assistant dean for research at the University of Nebraska. Along this global path, Kutty emphasizes, he found not just “great” mentors but ones who, through their varied experiences, shaped the collaborative practice he employs today.

“In training I had excellent mentors from the four corners of the world who allowed me to understand the diverse and innovative ways medicine is practiced in the care of children,” says Kutty.

Incorporating this foundation early in his career, Kutty found himself cultivating young minds in many places. He discovered a love of tutoring students and mentoring fellows who worked with him on the clinical side.

“I really get stimulated by working with young people and helping their careers grow,” Kutty says. “Working with young people really refreshes both parties.”

Pediatric cardiologist Melanie Nies agrees. “He’s bringing fresh eyes to everything we do, bringing people together, and he’s been wonderful about stepping in and being a team player, working on mentoring young faculty and finding opportunities for us,” says Nies, who recently joined the Emerging Women’s Leadership program at Johns Hopkins.

Indeed, Kutty’s energy for collaboration and mentorship may be contagious. He developed an ability to give and take, he says, and to be completely open and assist others—to share the pie: “The rewards are much greater than what you put in.”

This explains why, to this day, he carries a collaborative consortium of some two dozen clinical investigators in the United States, Europe and Asia in his back pocket. He teleconferences twice weekly with people like adult cardiologist Thomas Porter, head of cardiac imaging at Nebraska, and Stephen Archer, chair of internal medicine at Queens University in Canada. Then there are his collaborative resources in radiology, biomedical engineering, public health—relationships with multiple specialists and their work that he capitalizes on to adapt new methodologies and technology in caring for children and young adults.

“When you look at it from only a pediatric cardiology or congenital heart perspective, you are narrow in many ways,” says Kutty. “A lot of the exciting things we have tried to do came with working with people in different specialties”.   

Consequently, Kutty’s crowning achievements are many. He is one of the foremost authorities in multimodality cardiovascular imaging. His academic interests have focused on minimally invasive nonradiation diagnostics, myocardial function assessment, therapeutic ultrasound and cardiovascular outcomes. He has published extensively in reputed journals, and has made major contributions to understanding right heart function and developing the field of theranostic ultrasound, in which ultrasound is used for therapeutic as well as diagnostic purposes.

“We’re using ultrasound energy and contrast microbubbles to deliver local treatments to repair injured cardiac vessels,” explains Kutty. 

In his vision for the Helen B. Taussig Congenital Heart Center, he and colleagues are focusing on expanding cardiology in areas beyond cardiac imaging, including adult congenital heart disease and cardiac care in the context of genetics, maternal fetal health and oncology. Labs and programs dedicated to preventive cardiology, the right heart, data intelligence and theranostics are being developed, too. Also, once on board at the heart center, he immediately reached out to community physicians and cardiologists in the region to increase the center’s collaborative relationships.  

To pull all this off and lead an entire heart center in a changing health care landscape, Kutty says, “One needs the right resources in an environment with a strong history of collaboration and innovation.” He has found that at Johns Hopkins.

“Here tradition meets innovation,” he says. “This is a place of extreme collaboration, a place where you can really forge ahead and change the world.”

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