As part of his pursuit, he signed up for a research elective in the lab of the school’s top pharmacologist, which led to him studying a drug called lidocaine.
Doctors knew it helped stabilize the cardiac rhythm in patients having a heart attack but how it actually worked was unclear. The hunt alone thrilled Antman. Then it got better: His hypothesis proved to be correct.
After excitedly describing it all to his mother, she asked whether he would have to write a report. Antman wasn’t sure, so the next day he asked the pharmacology professor who promptly handed Antman a sheet of paper with a rectangular box.
The paper actually was an application to present his research at the American Heart Association’s leading scientific gathering, Scientific Sessions. His abstract was accepted, which is roughly the equivalent of a college film student getting to show his work at the Academy Awards.
In November 1973, Antman described his research findings in the Atlantic City Convention Hall. And he was hooked – on research and on cardiology, on Scientific Sessions and on the American Heart Association.
Not only has Antman attended every Scientific Sessions since 1977, he chaired the committee that prepared the program for the event in 2011 and 2012. On July 1, Antman went a step further, becoming the 78th president of the American Heart Association.
“For two-thirds of my life, I have been influenced by the American Heart Association,” Antman said.
Antman grew up in the Queens borough of New York City, the only child of a father who designed, developed and sold sweaters and a mother who taught school.
His mother was 13 when her family escaped Berlin during the Holocaust. They caught one of the last trains to Paris, crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary and arrived at Ellis Island. As the only English speaker in her family, his mother helped them get settled. She became fluent in six languages and taught her son to be comfortable with other languages.
“Both my parents expected that I would work hard and apply myself,” Antman said.
When he was 10, his father’s father died suddenly. Antman was 18 when his mother’s father died. Both were lost to heart disease, factors that – in retrospect – probably steered him to medicine, and influenced his love of cardiology and his passion for fighting the world’s leading cause of death.
“I wanted to have a career where science could be applied in a tangible way to improve a person’s life,” he said. “Bubbling around in the back of my head was whether something or someone could have saved my grandparents.”
In 1967, Antman enrolled in Columbia University, but he never earned an undergraduate degree. That’s right, the president of the American Heart Association didn’t graduate from college. Of course, there’s a good explanation. After his junior year, he was accepted into a program that allowed him to jump right into medical school, also at Columbia. He earned his M.D. in 1974.
The night before medical school began, Antman was in the lobby of his dorm when he saw a classmate staring out a window.
She wanted to drop a letter in a mailbox a block away, but hesitated to go out in the streets of New York alone at night. Antman took the letter to the mailbox.
That simple kind deed led to something special: They married when they were residents. He was then offered the choice of taking his cardiology training at a Stanford-affiliated hospital or one connected to Harvard. She had her pick of a hospital affiliated with the University of California-San Francisco or one connected to Harvard for her oncology training. Because the newlyweds had only one car, the Antmans remained on the East Coast and began their specialty training in Boston.
Elliott Antman became associated with famed cardiologist Eugene Braunwald, where he again took part in groundbreaking research in the TIMI Study Group. This time the research involved the use of medicines to minimize the area of damage in patients having a heart attack.
The first time he injected the research medicine into a patient having chest discomfort, Antman was concerned about how things would turn out.
“Lo and behold, the patient immediately improved,” Antman said. “That experience with that patient made me very interested in what we now call critical-care cardiology.”
The job running that cardiac care unit opened shortly before Antman’s cardiology fellowship ended. He and a colleague applied for the position. They got the job. The colleague left after a year. Antman remained director of the cardiac care unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital for 29 years.
His tenure spanned an incredible era in medicine. Among the advances, nitroglycerine went from an experimental drug to one used routinely; implantable defibrillators and stents that prop open clogged arteries arrived; and recently, cooling patients who suffer a cardiac arrest to preserve brain function became an accepted intervention.
“I was there when we did the first heart transplant in New England,” he said. “I became very interested in cardiac pacemakers, and for a couple of years ran our pacemaker service.”
In addition to accepting a variety of leadership roles at his hospital and in other medical organizations, he also remained active in research, publishing hundreds of papers. In 2003, he became a professor of medicine at Harvard.
Antman stepped down from his beloved position in the critical care unit in 2009. Why? Largely to step up his involvement with the American Heart Association.
Overseeing Scientific Sessions – the nation’s premier gathering of cardiovascular thought – was one of several major tasks that groomed Antman for the job of volunteer president.
The best training was spending the last year as president-elect, shadowing his predecessor and friend, Mariell Jessup, M.D., medical director of the Penn Heart and Vascular Center in Philadelphia.
“I hope I can live up to her very strong track record,” he said.
At a recent American Heart Association ceremony, Jessup and Antman both smiled as she pinned upon his lapel the same pin worn by each AHA president for several decades.
Antman takes over with a clear vision for the upcoming year.
As he wrote in a statement on his presidential goals, “By working together as a strong unbroken chain we can continue to loosen the grip that heart disease and stroke still have on millions of Americans today. Today, we have less of a problem acquiring data and much more of a problem in interpreting the tidal wave of information engulfing us. Thus, as President I want to ensure that all of us at the AHA embrace an information age that requires us to learn new terms and concepts and to think differently about heart disease and its treatment – because now the technology allows us to do just that.”
For example, high blood pressure is a major risk for heart disease and stroke that can be controlled.
Historically, patients have had their blood pressure checked at a doctor’s office. Maybe they get extra readings at a clinic, or drug store. Some even have their own cuff to track blood pressure.
“But here’s what we can do today,” Antman said. “Patients can purchase a blood pressure cuff that communicates directly with their smartphone. Their readings are stored on the phone so they can take it to their physician and provide a display of several months’ of data. … We have to think differently about how we diagnose and treat patients because of what technology offers us.”
There are a few more things worth knowing about Dr. Elliott Antman, primarily involving his family.
Dr. Karen Antman also has been busy with her own career as an internationally renowned cancer doctor – serving as president of several national cancer organizations, and now as the Dean of the Boston University School of Medicine. This November, she’ll be at Scientific Sessions in Chicago to hear him give his Presidential Address, a highlight of every leader’s tenure.
And then there’s the rest of the Antman family – their daughter, son and five grandchildren.
Their two children became physicians. Each also married a medical school classmate, just like their parents!
Having seen how busy their parents’ lives were, the kids might have turned away from medicine. The opposite happened.
“I asked them about that one night at dinner and they said, `We saw how happy you were in your career decisions,’” Antman said. “That was a very gratifying answer.”