By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Gordon Tomaselli was in his first year of medical residency when his mom went into cardiac arrest on her way to a doctor’s visit.

She had been living with heart failure, breathless even from walking or bathing, when her heart stopped beating that day in 1985. She was only 49 but needed a new heart.

After a grueling three-week wait, Patricia Tomaselli’s life was saved by a heart transplant – a procedure that had a major impact on her son, both personally and professionally.

“The progresses and successes in immunology and myocardial biology made her heart transplant possible; it reinforced that I was most interested in a career where I combined taking care of patients with investigation, with research,” Tomaselli said.

More than three decades later, Tomaselli is now a noted researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He was recently honored with the American Heart Association’s prestigious Gold Heart award for his career that has combined patient care and scientific research.

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Tomaselli was born in Portland, Maine, and raised in upstate New York. Growing up with four siblings, he held a collection of odd jobs, including busing tables and delivering furniture.

“The most memorable ones were building and painting modular homes, and weeding, grating and stacking onions,” he said.

None was as memorable as his dad’s job.

In the late 1960s, Rudolph Tomaselli was an animator who helped create Punchy, the Hawaiian Punch cartoon mascot known for TV commercials in which he’d ask, “Hey, how ‘bout a nice Hawaiian punch?” before smacking an unsuspecting character. Later, Rudolph Tomaselli worked on the Beavis and Butt-Head TV show and movie.

But Gordon Tomaselli was drawn to science more than cartoons. He earned his undergraduate degree in biochemistry and chemistry in 1977 from the State University of New York at Buffalo and his medical degree in 1982 from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, then completed his medical training and residency at the University of California at San Francisco.

Tomaselli served as a research fellow at the UCSF Cardiovascular Research Institute and at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine before joining the faculty and starting his own research lab in 1989. He is now chief of the Division of Cardiology, co-director of the Heart and Vascular Institute, and the Michel Mirowski M.D. Professor of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Tomaselli began volunteering with the AHA’s Maryland affiliate about the time he came to Johns Hopkins. He served on committees where he could put his zeal for research to good use. He also was awarded his first research grant by the AHA.

He became the national volunteer president of the AHA in 2011, a year-long term he focused on increasing federal funding for scientific research. He also worked on raising awareness by “putting cardiovascular diseases and other non-communicable diseases on the world’s radar screen” – and by helping people understand they can avoid them.

“I have always been in places where people take care of the sickest of the sick, but I began to recognize that the greatest impact we can have is in prevention,” he said, pointing to the AHA’s efforts to lobby for tobacco control and limits on sugar-sweetened beverages, among other efforts.

Tomaselli, an expert on sudden cardiac death, has focused most of his research on understanding how to prevent deadly heart rhythm disturbances and to improve the methods for identifying patients most at risk. More than 350,000 Americans a year are estimated to suffer from cardiac arrest outside the hospital each year.

“Sudden cardiac arrest is a serious and preventable public health problem,” said Tomaselli, who urges people to learn CPR so they can jump in and help if someone suddenly collapses.

Recently Tomaselli designed a large-scale study looking at predictors of sudden cardiac death in 1,200 patients with implanted defibrillators.

“We have been broadly studying their genetics, ECGs, images of the heart and other biomarkers to determine if we can better predict who is most likely to get shocked for a potentially lethal arrhythmia,” he said.

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Tomaselli and his wife Charlene have three children and a grandchild, and Charlene is active in Go Red For Women.

You might find him throwing batting practice or shooting hoops with his son Matthew, 17, or spending time on a treadmill. He’s a fan of Life’s Simple 7, which encourages people to stay healthy and active through small steps.

As for his mother, she died a decade ago, at age 69, after developing renal failure.

Tomaselli remains grateful for 20 extra years spent with her, thanks to her heart transplant.

“Many stories in cardiology are tragic. Her story is not tragic. Hers is a story of success,” he said. “She watched her children get married. She welcomed her grandchildren into the world. She saw those grandchildren graduate – and even saw some get married. The extension of my mother’s life was to my family a true miracle.”

Photo by Tim Sharp