A patient with life-threatening symptoms changed Dr. John Galat’s life forever. And she wasn’t even his patient.

Galat (pronounced Ga-LAT) was a third-year medical student at The Ohio State University’s College of Medicine that day in 1983 when a woman arrived by ambulance with severe chest pain. She was having a heart attack. Several doctors debated possible treatment – too slowly, Galat thought – when a man rushed in, wearing a full-length mink coat and a beaver skin hat.

The man, a surgeon, grabbed a syringe of medication. One of the other physicians shouted, “You can’t give that!” The surgeon replied, “The hell I can’t!” and administered the drug, a beta blocker which immediately helped stabilize the patient.

Galat was in awe of the confident, flamboyant doctor. He turned out to be a well-known cardiac surgeon. His quick thinking motivated Galat to become a cardiothoracic surgeon.

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Today, at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute - Elizabeth, Galat performs major vascular surgery, heart valve surgery, and other procedures on the heart. Like the man who inspired him, Galat knows how to make an entrance. He flew himself to his job interview with Novant Health, piloting his single-engine Cessna 182 Skylane. He opted for a suit, rather than furs, however, when it came to meeting his prospective employer.

‘I need to be with people’

The oldest of seven children, Galat grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, a small town in north of Columbus. Neither of his parents attended college. His dad, who worked in construction, urged the children to study hard if they didn’t want to end up doing such physical labor. The lesson succeeded: Galat’s siblings include a general surgeon, an orthopedic surgeon, a nurse and a social worker.

He began to consider medicine as an undergraduate at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Originally, he planned to be an organic chemist. But toiling in a lab on a Friday night, he glanced out a window and spied some of his friends. “I did not want to be tied up in a lab,” he forlornly realized. “I need to be with people.”

Four years of medical school, seven years of general surgery residency, and two years of cardiac surgery residency followed.

After spending most of his career in Florida, Galat joined Novant Health in November 2022. He was attracted by the prospect of helping cardiac services continue to grow in Charlotte, a thriving city with a booming population.

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Galat fit right in with the practice’s team approach, said Dr. Tom Theruvath, cardiothoracic surgeon and medical director for cardiac surgery at Novant Health’s Heart & Vascular Institute. At the end of day, “He’s always the one who asks, ‘Hey, do you need anything else done?’”

Galat, Theruvath, and colleagues regularly meet to discuss patient cases and hear second opinions on their treatment plans. Theruvath appreciates Galat’s assessments based on decades of experience and decisive approach to care. “He’s a very good listener,” Theruvath observed. “He thinks about everything very carefully and makes very clear decisions.”

Unlike what some might expect from a heart surgeon, Theruvath said, Galat is a humble man who rises at 4:30 a.m. to read the Bible. Galat’s faith has led him to volunteer on medical trips in such far-flung spots at China, Mongolia, Albania and Kenya. He believes, "I'll never be able to operate on all patients, but my focus is on training other surgeons so they can do it themselves in their countries."

Training surgeons from Albania to Kenya

Of all his accomplishments, Galat is most proud of his volunteer work in Albania, a developing nation northwest of Greece. The country was hopelessly isolated under decades of Communist rule that ended in 1992. Galat traveled to the country four times from 2000 to 2005 to teach coronary artery bypass surgery to a group of Albanian surgeons in the nation’s capital, Tirana. The procedure is common in the U.S. but little known in Albania until relatively recently.

He was fascinated to see the effect of communism on the landscape. Concrete domes with slits for guns, designed to help defend the country, dotted the hillsides. “The Communists thought that the United States was going to invade,” Galat explained. He also noticed few trees and vegetation in those years because people were burning foliage for fuel to cook and heat their homes.

In spite of the differences between the two cultures, Galat built strong relationships. Several Albanian surgeons traveled to the U.S. to stay and learn from Galat in Florida hospitals. “At the end, they really were self-sufficient,” he recalled.

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Since 2005, Galat has also regularly used his vacation hours to teach in the cardiothoracic surgery residency program at Tenwek Hospital in Bomet, Kenya, most recently this summer. He helped start the heart surgery program there. “Over time a lot of people have gotten involved,” he said.

Knowledge of heart surgery is especially important in a country where rheumatic heart disease is prevalent. The condition, in which heart valves are damaged or destroyed, is “almost unheard of” in the U.S., Galat said. It can occur when a case of strep throat goes untreated then spreads widely through a community, leading to heart disease in some people.

His job may be filled with serious responsibilities, but Galat finds time for fun. Colleagues look forward to any gatherings that include his cooking, including "fantastic little appetizers and desserts that he makes,” Theruvath said. Galat is also an avid fisherman who enjoys finding new recipes for his catch.

He will always be grateful to the physician in the mink coat who represented a career in which Galat found his own passion. “It's a privilege to operate on a patient,” he said, “who has entrusted their life into my hands.”