By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Growing up in Philadelphia, Mark Creager usually could be found on a sandlot or a playground. Baseball was his favorite sport, yet he and his buddies played them all: touch football, handball, basketball or sometimes just making up their own ball game. He enjoyed running and joined his high school track and cross country teams.
Drama became a passion, too. He earned roles in high school and college dramas and musicals, though he acknowledges never landing a singing part; in the musical “Once Upon A Mattress,” he played the mute king who communicated only by miming.
Creager loved sports and acting. However, those were always diversions on the way to his true calling: A life in science and the endless possibilities the field offered.
“I wanted to do something where I was helping others and making a difference,” he said. “Coupling that with my interest in science, a career in medicine seemed to be the right fit for me.”
Creager indeed made a career of it, and quite a distinguished one.
On Wednesday, he’ll become the 79th president of the American Heart Association, the highest role for a science volunteer in the nation’s oldest and largest cardiovascular health organization. And the following Monday, he’ll become Director of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Heart and Vascular Center, the nonprofit academic health system connected with Dartmouth College’s medical school.
Creager is the first physician in his family, so he came by his love of science and medicine on his own.
His grandparents emigrated from Europe, and as a teen, Creager worked in his grandfather’s men’s store. His dad was a procurement officer, purchasing equipment for the military. His mom managed the house and later worked for the IRS when Creager and his younger brother and sister were older.
Creager stayed close to home for college, attending Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, because it had a reputation as an excellent premedical program. He returned to Philadelphia to attend Temple University Medical School. He became hooked on cardiology following a rotation in his third year.
“It was just perfect – the physiology, the science, using my own skills with patients to learn their history, examine and diagnose them,” he said. “I also loved the potential that cardiology offered at the time to provide therapies to make people feel better and prolong their lives.”
Next came an internship and residency in internal medicine. And for the first time, he left his Philly comfort zone, heading to Boston.
Working at what was then called University Hospital, as well as Boston City Hospital, Creager knew he’d picked the right profession.
He soon found the right mentors.
The first was Jay Coffman, who encouraged Creager to train with him and lead a research project studying how the body’s nervous system handles a heart attack, and how that affects circulation. It was Creager’s first exposure to research and his first extensive work in vascular medicine.
“More than anyone else, Jay taught me the art of medicine and how to be both an effective and compassionate doctor,” Creager said. “He also taught me how to think like a scientist, with well-reasoned questions, thoughtful design of experiments and unbiased evaluation of the data. Taken together, he opened my eyes to what a future caring for patients and conducting research could hold.”
Then came a cardiology fellowship under Tom Ryan, who’d led one of the first major trials comparing medication to heart surgery in patients with coronary artery disease.
Creager arrived as Ryan and his colleagues began studying a new class of drugs for congestive heart failure. It was ACE inhibitors, which have since become a standard treatment for heart failure patients. That experience stoked his desire to become a clinical investigator.
For the next phase of his career, Creager took a job almost too good to be true: a combined faculty position working for both Ryan and Coffman.
Five years later, the folks at nearby Brigham and Women’s Hospital – one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching facilities – started a division in vascular medicine. They lured in Creager.
His boss was Victor Dzau, who has since become president of the Institute of Medicine. Colleagues included Joseph Loscalzo, now the longtime editor-in-chief of the AHA journal Circulation, and later, Gary Gibbons, now the director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
“You can imagine what a remarkable opportunity it was for all of us to work together in a new and exciting field,” Creager said. It enabled him to combine his clinical and research interests in one area. His timing proved to be good, as exciting discoveries about how blood vessels functioned and how they became diseased were unfolding.
Pharmacologist Robert Furchgott had recently discovered a substance that’s released from the inner lining of blood vessels, which relaxed their smooth muscle and caused them to dilate. Furchgott, whose early career work in another area was funded by the AHA, eventually would win a Nobel Prize for this discovery. The folks at Brigham and Women’s saw the long-term implications right away.
“And this fundamental discovery laid the groundwork for my research for the next 25 years,” Creager said.
Mentors Coffman and Ryan modeled something else Creager would emulate: Devotion to the American Heart Association.
Coffman was heavily involved in a Council on Circulation while Creager worked under him, later to become its chair. Ryan was involved in the AHA’s national leadership during Creager’s year under him, going on to become president from 1984-86.
Creager began attending the organization’s flagship medical gathering, Scientific Sessions, in the late 1970s, and soon began presenting his work there. In the late 1980s, he received an AHA grant to study the effect of high cholesterol on blood vessel function, and he joined the leadership committee on the Council on Circulation. Creager also served on research peer-review committees that helped determine funding of projects for what was then called the Massachusetts Affiliate. He later chaired that committee.
This was when he began to understand the pull the AHA had on Coffman and Ryan.
“I was meeting and working with people who were leaders in the field, people I viewed as role models,” Creager said. “There was no question – I loved it.”
His first big AHA role was chairman of the writing committee for a task force on clinical training and competency in vascular medicine, overseen by both the AHA and the American College of Cardiology. He then became a member of the AHA’s Science Advisory & Coordinating Committee (SACC), a hub of sorts for all councils and important committees.
“One of my skills is bringing people together, finding compromise and building consensus,” he said. “I can only assume that others recognized that, as I was asked to do more.”
In the early 2000s, the AHA held its first conference on Peripheral Atherosclerotic Vascular Disease, and Creager co-chaired it.
The gathering was so successful that it would be held again a few years later. Another plus was that this experience gave Creager a better feel for the depth and breadth of the AHA. Again, he liked what he saw.
His rise in the organization soon picked up steam.
Creager became the first chair of an AHA scientific working group focusing on peripheral vascular disease. He eventually found himself on the national Research Committee.
The Research Committee bears a huge responsibility: The AHA funds more cardiovascular research than any organization outside the federal government, having invested in excess of $3.7 billion, including more than $100 million annually since 1996.
Creager became chair of that committee and earned a spot on the national board.
During his tenure, the national board decided to evaluate its research program. Creager and Gordon Tomaselli, a recent AHA president, co-chaired a Research Summit to ensure it would sustain and enhance its extraordinary impact.
Creager was then asked to chair the Strategic Planning Committee for 2014-17. This group emphasized the importance of promoting a Culture of Health, and developed a set of Guiding Values that inspire all of the AHA’s programs.
“That’s when I really saw all sides of the AHA,” he said. “I developed a tremendous appreciation for the wonderful work the AHA does to help people have longer, healthier lives.”
The last phase of Creager’s grooming, of sorts, for the presidency was joining the board of the Founders Affiliate. This rounded out his viewpoint by giving him a grassroots perspective.
“You get to see the enthusiasm, the energy, the work being undertaken by our volunteers in in putting community programs into effect, in local advocacy, and in raising funds to support our mission,” he said. “Those are the things that make a difference to the public.”
Creager spent the past year as President-elect, working alongside President Elliott Antman.
He takes over with an ambitious to-do list, topped by an emphasis on ensuring the AHA’s research program remains outstanding and impactful.
He wants to ensure the AHA’s interaction with scientists, clinicians and healthcare professionals is hitting the mark. This means everything from continuing to have premier scientific meetings and journals to improving the quality of patient care to promoting healthy environments in schools, workplaces and communities.
“The AHA is certainly promoting all these things and I want to remain engaged in all of them,” he said.
Creager is particularly interested in volunteer engagement. As someone who’s taken so much joy from his interaction with the AHA, he wants others to get the most from their time, too.
As a vascular disease specialist, it only makes sense that he’ll be looking for ways to enhance the AHA’s involvement in that area, too.
If all goes as planned, the theme of Creager’s tenure will be aging in good cardiovascular health.
“Our objective at the AHA is not just to reduce mortality,” he said, “but to enable people to live long and healthy lives, unaffected by cardiovascular diseases and stroke.”
There’s one more important area of Creager’s life worthy of examining – what he does away from science.
Actually, it was through work that he met his wife, Shelly; she joined his research program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital 27 years ago.
They have two children: Michael, who is 22 and just graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut; and Alyssa, who is 20 and entering her junior year at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Two ties bind the family: Traveling and skiing.
Michael was 5 and Alyssa 3 when they hit the slopes. They soon advanced from good skiers to competitive racers. That meant the Creagers developed a second life as ski parents.
“It took us into a whole other environment from the rigors of science and patient care, with opportunities to enjoy the out of doors together, develop new friendships and become re-energized,” Creager said.
Now, with the kids away, Dr. Creager and Shelly spend warm-weather weekends riding bicycles. They also savor their second home, a ski condominium in Vermont they’ve had for 15 years.
In fact, that property is coming in especially handy now that he’ll be working nearby at Dartmouth.
As he approaches 40 years in cardiology, Creager is fascinated by the changes he’s seen. There are tools to diagnose patients and new techniques to treat heart and vascular disease that couldn’t have been dreamed of when he began.
“I’m privileged to have been a witness to it,” he said. “I think people entering the cardiovascular medicine field now have an even greater opportunity to make a great difference.”
Best of all, he’ll spend the next year personally making sure the AHA continues helping make it possible.
“Let’s aim high and set lofty goals,” Creager said Tuesday night after a formal passing of the gavel. “There is much more to accomplish.”