When Lancastrians gathered last week to hear four heart doctors discuss 50 years of local cardiology, they anticipated that the main celebrities in the room would be the cardiologists.

They were right, but there was an additional attraction. Gary W. Ghee and his wife, Sheila, came from their home in Leola. Penn Medicine/Lancaster General Health cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Mark Burlingame introduced Ghee as the first patient to undergo open-heart surgery in Lancaster.

“He was the brave person to be first,” said Burlingame, who also serves as chairman of the department of surgery. “We’re glad to know he’s still with us.”

Everyone applauded.

On Sept. 7, 1983, Burlingame and Dr. Lawrence Bonchek performed a triple bypass on Ghee, then 42 . Thirty-three years and two other heart procedures later, and Ghee is moving along.

“You have surgery and go on with your life,” Ghee said during an interview after the cardiology forum April 21 at LancasterHistory.org. “I like to stay busy.”

Drs. William McCann, John Slovak, Neil Clark and Burlingame explained their roles in the hospital’s cardiology program. Dr. Nikitas Zervanos, director emeritus of the Lancaster General Family Medicine Residency Program and president of the Edward Hand Medical Heritage Foundation, served as moderator. The foundation co-sponsored the forum with LancasterHistory.org.

The doctors repeatedly noted how much heart treatment has changed over the years. Various methods of assessing what is wrong with a heart prior to surgical intervention may be the biggest change.

“We’re able to see the heart inside you while you’re alive,” Clark said, “and not cut you open and later try to figure out what went wrong.”

The doctors illustrated their discussion with a variety of images, including views of hearts before and after various procedures and color videos of beating hearts.

McCann, the only retiree of the four cardiologists, discussed the beginnings of modern cardiology. He began working here in 1965.

The hospital had three cardiologists and 11 internists in 1965, he said. Now the hospital employs 42 cardiologists and 68 internists.

McCann said there were only two heart tests in 1965: chest X-rays and electrocardiograms. In 1940, the hospital performed just over 1,200 EKGs. Last year, 76,000 EKGs were done there.

Slovak, discussing the history of interventional cardiology, noted that Dr. John Esbenshade did the first heart catheterization in Lancaster, and Dr. Richard Mann did the first coronary angiogram.

Modern coronary stents came along in the late 1980s and early 1990s, progressing to primary stenting in 2000. In the future, Slovak said, stents will be absorbed into the body.

Clark discussed the history of noninvasive cardiology. A “revolution in imaging,” including nuclear imaging, has improved the ability of physicians to assess heart function, he said.

Early electrocardiography only told doctors if a patient had a blocked or otherwise malfunctioning heart. Those images “started out like a white rabbit in a snowstorm,”' Clark said, but now doctors can view the beating heart in three dimensions and color.

Burlingame said Lancaster General has performed over 22,000 open-heart surgeries since Ghee’s in 1983. The first robotic open-heart surgery was done there three years ago.

Several of these cases have been memorable, Burlingame said. The power went out during one surgery, and the medical staff had to complete the operation with flashlights. The patient went home and did well.

“That’s sort of a once in a lifetime experience,” the doctor remarked.

Zervanos made a pitch for the Edward Hand Medical Heritage Foundation, which preserves the history of medicine in this area in a collection of more than 11,000 books, medical instruments and other artifacts. The foundation’s museum at Burle Business Park is open to visitors by appointment; call 847-2842.

Jack Brubaker, a retired LNP staff writer, writes “The Scribbler” column twice a week. He welcomes comments and contributions at scribblerLNP@gmail.com or 669-1929.