When Oliver D’Silva, M.D. ’97 was 11 years old, his father, a nephrologist, brought home a three-dimensional model of a human heart. He put it on the dining room table, where it attracted the attention of his son.
“I enjoyed opening up the chambers and looking at the valves,” D’Silva recalls. “The model sat on my dresser from that day on. Once in a while, when I took a break from homework in high school, I'd pick up the model and again try to learn just one new thing about the heart structures.”
D’Silva recalls moments from his childhood in which he seemed destined for his craft. He often liked playing with electronic circuit boards from Radio Shack, using them to create light and sound.
Years later, when he learned about cardiac electrophysiology, “I felt like I had encountered an unexpected marriage of the beautiful vascular physiology of the heart and the electronics that I had enjoyed playing with as a kid,” he says.
Now D’Silva, 33, is more immersed in the human heart than ever. The electrophysiologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, Ill., treats patients with heart rhythm problems for a living.
“When I started medical school, I really enjoyed cardiology, because in a lot of ways the heart is both complex and simple,” he says. D’Silva compares the heart to a football squeezing in and out. “There’s a discreet elegance to it,” he says. “It’s almost proof that there is a God, because it’s such an elegant design. It’s so elegant in the way it pumps blood in such a small space.” As a student at Northeast Ohio Medical University, D’Silva was drawn by the concrete science behind his specialty. And as a physician, he’s rewarded by helping people. “You get to deal with patients who really need you,” he says. “You’re directly involved. You can see the clear benefit of what you’ve done.”
While electrophysiology was a burgeoning field from the 1970s to the 1990s, today it’s at the forefront of medicine, D’Silva says, and the mental stimulation it provides him drives his work most of all.
He compares the feeling of making a diagnosis to the elation one feels after completing a complicated jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes, all it takes is a one-day procedure to permanently cure a patient’s lifelong heart problem, he says.
With new discoveries in cardiology happening so rapidly, now is an ideal time to be an electrophysiologist, says D’Silva, who himself is making some of those discoveries.
In October, he was part of a team that published research in the Journal of Cardiovascular Electrophysiology. In its study, the team used a three-dimensional mapping system to track ultrasound-based catheters in the body without using an X-ray. The team strove to find a way to reduce X-ray use and the radiation it builds up in the body over a lifetime.
“We published a series featuring 60 patients where we didn’t use X-rays for even one second,” D’Silva says. “We’re probably the only medical center in the country performing these procedures without using any X-ray. We’re pretty proud of that, because we think that’s something that can help patients.”
When D’Silva’s not tending to patients at Advocate Illinois Masonic, he sits on the board of directors of a local clinic that provides free medical care to underserved Chicagoans on the city’s north side. It’s run by medical students and supervised by established doctors.
D’Silva first volunteered at the clinic as a cardiology fellow seven years ago, doubtful he’d be able to squeeze it into his schedule. However, after his first visit, he says, “I knew I would be back.”