Though roughly the size of a fist, the human heart outperforms all other muscles in the body. It begins pumping just 21 days after conception and rarely skips a beat until death. For an average 70-year-old, that amounts to 2.5 billion beats over a lifetime. Yet, despite its distinction as the body’s strongest muscle, too often this biological workhorse falters. Cardiovascular disease kills more than 600,000 Americans each year, according to the American Heart Association, making it the leading cause of death. Working tirelessly to decrease that statistic, Matthews Chacko ’93, MD, Azusa Pacific’s 2013 Alumnus of the Year, performs some of the most advanced treatments in cardiovascular medicine.
As an interventional cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. Chacko performs invasive procedures to treat several cardiovascular conditions such as coronary artery disease, which involves fatty plaque that builds up and narrows the arteries and can lead to heart attacks. One of the many benefits of his association with the prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital includes his involvement in cutting-edge trials, procedures, and techniques that use a revolutionary procedure on patients with severely narrowed aortic valves. “Traditionally requiring open-chest surgery, aortic valve replacement can now be accomplished via a catheter through the groin,” he said. “This is especially good news for the elderly and frail who may not be good surgical candidates and whose aortic valves have degenerated and calcified, dramatically impairing the heart’s ability to pump blood through it. This minimally invasive procedure can mean new life for a significant number of patients.
“A doctor has to be a master of every detail, because, at times, we hold life in our hands,” said Dr. Chacko. By his own admission, however, he was not always Johns Hopkins material. “When I took my first exams in medical school, I bombed them,” he said. “I remembered how a former APU professor, Dr. David Cherney, had taught me the level of detail to know for his exams, and that this was what they were looking for in medical school. When I studied like he taught me to, I really flourished.”
That work ethic carried him through medical school at the University of Kansas, residency in medicine at Johns Hopkins, and fellowship training in cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic. After four years of undergraduate studies, four years of medical school, three years of residency, and five years of fellowship training, Dr. Chacko stands as one of the nation’s most prominent cardiologists. He respectfully remembers his roots, appreciates his journey, pays forward his gifts, and considers his role as husband and father his life’s greatest accomplishment.
“My time at APU was pivotal in my personal growth,” said Dr. Chacko, whose father, uncle, brother, and sister attended APU. As a scholarshipped soccer player who started all four years and earned honorable mention as an All-American, he relished his time on the field. But what he learned as he built relationships with his teammates, classmates, coaches, and professors made an impact beyond his love for the game. “What struck me most profoundly about APU was that people from very different backgrounds and cultures could come together with a Christ-like mindset and serve as effective difference makers on campus and throughout the world. I am humbled by the honor of the Alumnus of the Year award from the place that helped lay the groundwork for my life’s work.”
That solid foundation anchors him in a job marked by a grueling routine of treating critically ill patients, performing invasive procedures, maintaining a full teaching schedule, and lecturing and traveling around the world to work with and train other doctors, while carefully guarding his family time. He also remains committed to training future doctors by guiding medical students, residents, and fellows through their journey in medicine. The road to a career in medicine is tough, and Dr. Chacko gladly passes along sage words of advice to those with such aspirations. “First, get a mentor,” he said. “That invaluable connection provides support and insight you can’t get from any book. Second, involve yourself in a research project in which you can become an expert in something. Third, know the big picture as well as the details. Fourth, don’t give up. And fifth, reach for the stars, as you never know how things will turn out—I am living proof of that.”
However, no advice can replace the value of knowing why you want to become a doctor and keeping that reason at the forefront of your work. “This is truly my calling,” he said, knowing that the Master Physician guides his hands. His pastor and friend of many years repenned the words of The Healer by Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier upon his graduation from medical school—“The Good Physician liveth yet, Thy friend and guide to be; The Healer by Gennesaret, Shall walk the rounds with thee.” “That final stanza speaks to me every day. There is no greater gift than healing, and by following Jesus’ teaching to do so, I can have a positive impact on people. I can look into their hearts, literally and spiritually, and make a difference.”