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SSM Health Fond du Lac puts community’s hearts at the forefront

Dale Michels Heart & Vascular Care completes $8.5 million expansion

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May 14, 2024

FOND DU LAC – Most can agree that it’s important to have a good healthcare system close to home should emergencies arise – especially when it comes to the heart.

This, Tadeo Diaz Balderrama, a cardiologist at SSM Health Fond du Lac Regional Clinic, said, is why Dale Michels Heart & Vascular Care (430 E. Division St.) recently completed an $8.5 million expansion – the response to the growing need of cardiovascular care in the area.

“The moment the expansion opened, we grew right into it,” he said. “People see that they can get care locally. We now provide state-of-the-art care in multiple cardiovascular areas.”

The Michels family, who supported the creation of the heart center – which is named in honor of their late father, Dale – donated $3 million toward the expansion, a decision Kevin Michels, vice president of fleet and equipment at Michels Corporation, said was “a no-brainer.”

“It’s the right thing to do,” Kevin said. “And that’s how our dad taught us. You do the right thing. We’ve been blessed with the opportunity to help out in many ways around our community here, but the heart center at the hospital is one of these things that the entire family has a lot of passion about.”

Presenting a need
In 1998, Dale Michels – who was owner and president of Michels Pipeline Construction, Inc. at the time – had a heart attack, and wasn’t able to be treated promptly due to the lack of cardiovascular care in Fond du Lac.

“(They said) he would have to go down to St. Luke’s in Milwaukee,” Pat Michels, president and CEO of Michels Corporation and Kevin’s brother, said. “Flight for Life landed in Fond du Lac, loaded him all up. It was a cold March night and they couldn’t get the second engine on the helicopter to fire back up. They had to get an ambulance and transported him to St. Luke’s.”

Pat said once his father arrived, he was told he would need to have surgery.

“He had complications from that surgery and died about a month later,” Pat said.

Dale was only 65 years old.

The loss the Michel’s family experienced, Pat said, helped them recognize the lack of local cardiovascular services – and the importance of timely care.

Pat said Robert Fale – president of Agnesian Healthcare in Fond du Lac at the time and a family friend – reached out to him to see if the family would support a better heart center at the hospital.

“He had given me a tour (of) what they had at the time for heart care,” he said. “It was a small room, with all the equipment and everything.”

Part of the expansion includes a new cardiac electrophysiology (EP) lab, the fourth lab at the heart center. Photo Courtesy of SSM Health

Pat said Fale explained that the doctors and nurses could barely move throughout the room andshared with him how he wanted to expand heart and vascular care in Fond du Lac and the surrounding area.

“We got the family together, we talked about it and we said, ‘yes, we would support that,'” he said.

Then, in 2006, the Michels family donated $1.6 million to help launch Dale Michels Heart & Vascular Care.

The Michel’s first donation, Balderrama said, helped set up the center’s 24/7 cath lab, cardiovascular services and cardiothoracic surgery services – allowing the team to accept patients in need of that specific care instead of having to send them to a different hospital.

“From there, it evolved into what it is now,” he said. “We added a second interventionalist to provide 24/7 coverage, and then (we) added the addition of electrophysiology with the hybrid lab, and the hire of Dr. (Jeremy) Zimmermann, to build up from half of an electrophysiologist to one and a half electrophysiologists.”

The more people in the Fond du Lac community were able to receive care at home, the more Balderrama said the need to expand again came about.

“I (would) say, ‘our pants are getting a little shorter and our belt is getting a little tighter,'” he said.

That, Balderrama said, is why SSM Health St. Agnes Hospital decided two years ago to expand.

Renovations, expansion
Balderrama said the cardiovascular team has been working with two cath labs, where they can perform procedures, such as coronary angiograms, coronary stenting, pacemakers, structural cases, interventional radiology cases and vascular surgery cases.

“We’ve been running those as much as we absolutely can,” he said.

The hybrid operating room, Balderrama said, also became “very busy.”

“It was quite obvious that we were going to need to expand the rooms where we could perform electrophysiology procedures, structural procedures and just general run-of-the-mill cardiovascular lab procedures,” he said.

The growing demand led to the addition of the most recent cardiac electrophysiology (EP) lab, the fourth at Dale Michels Heart & Vascular Care.

“It’s‚ very carefully placed because when we initially said we needed another lab, everybody said we didn’t have space, and somehow they found this wonderful area where we can do procedures,” he said.

In addition to the fourth lab, Balderrama said the expansion includes three additional prep/recovery rooms.

“Now, patients are in a bay where the nurses can help efficiently,” he said.

Other updates, he said, include a renovated reception area, a private consultation room, expanded employee spaces, aesthetic improvements to the intensive care unit (ICU) and a semi-private family area.

“We had this long, empty hallway with a random table sitting in the middle where patients could wait, but there was no privacy – no area for families to meet or families to be able to talk to providers,” he said. “Now, we have a little more private, specific bays where patients can gather. It’s helped not only our cath lab but it’s helped the ICU.”

Better together
Not only is the expansion a response to the growing need for those in the community, but Balderrama said the tenure of staff shows that Dale Michels Heart & Vascular Care is doing something right and it continues to gain the trust of the community.

“I think we all are strong believers that, as a group, we function much better, and we are only able to do that because of the people we work with‚ ” he said. “The reality is, I would not be able to do a fraction of the job that I do without the nurses in the cath lab, my nurse in the clinic, medical imaging and empowering the cinematographers to elevate their imaging and their understanding so that they can find those people that are in trouble and let us know. Too many things fall through the cracks when you don’t empower people.”

Balderrama said many employees have also continued to grow in their positions throughout the years – from a CRNA (certified registered nurse anesthetist), to an LPN (licensed practical nurse), to an RN (registered nurse) to an NP (nurse practitioner).

He said people, on several occasions, have asked, “what are they doing in St. Agnes that they can do so many procedures?” – which he said all comes down to learning and growing with one another throughout the years.

“I think we’re respectful,” he said. “I think we appreciate one another. I think we acknowledge that everybody’s hard work is what leads to success – not just the support of one person.”

Tadeo Diaz Balderrama

Reflecting on the completion of the heart center’s expansion, Balderrama said “we don’t need more buildings, we need more people.”

“A building is cheap from the standpoint of investment,” he said. “Keeping somebody, growing them and helping them take good care of patients is very expensive, and it doesn’t (always) happen. It’s happened here, which we’re very thankful for.”

Always patient-focused
Balderrama said it can be unusual to see a smaller, regional center, such as SSM Fond du Lac, provide the vast variety of care they do – but said that shouldn’t be the case.

Instead, he said people should be asking, “why can’t we get this care locally? Why do we have to travel?”

“I heard an interesting comment (from someone who) said, ‘we’ll never have CT surgery in Baraboo,’ and I thought, ‘why not?'” he said. “Is it that they don’t deserve it? Is it that they don’t see the growth potential?”

Balderrama said the team at SSM Health Fond du Lac takes great pride in being able to provide the kind of health care the community needs.

“We care for a lot of our family members and employees’ family members, which to me is a great honor,” he said. “As a physician, the fact that one of your coworkers trusts you with the care of their loved ones, or with their care, speaks mountains‚ We realize that the value of our care is there in our providers.”

Balderrama said the Michels family are an example of why it’s important to have that local care – which wouldn’t have been possible at SSM Health Fond du Lac without them.

“The Michels have an ongoing commitment to support us, which is very much appreciated,” he said. “I think they identify that this investment is not only a corporation investment or community investment, but it’s also an investment for their employees.”

And, with the constant evolution of technology, Pat said it’s important for the family to keep up with those changes at Dale Michels Heart & Vascular Care.

“We felt this was a good use of our philanthropy to keep supporting this going forward,” he said. “It would have helped our father if we could have had that immediate heart care in Fond du Lac. It wasn’t there at the time. Now it is, and how many people are still walking around today that might not have if they did not have that here?”

Kevin said the family hopes to see the regional healthcare center continue to thrive.

“We’d like to see SSM continue to be able to provide the community the advanced cardiac care that they now can, and keep moving forward,” he said.

The $8.5 million expansion project, which was done over the past two years to avoid patient disruption, was completed last month.

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