James Thompson, M.D., was a first-year medical student picking out the tools of the trade. The vendor had textbooks, lab coats, otoscopes, everything needed to fill a medical bag.
“Give me your cheapest stethoscope because I’m not going to be a cardiologist,” Thompson quipped.
Fast-forward to the second year of medical school when Thompson had been flirting with various pediatric surgical specialties, none of which quite struck his fancy. Thompson sits in a large lecture hall and a pediatric cardiologist is presenting. He’s young. He’s funny. He’s speaking a language that resonates with Thompson.
“He just said things in a way that made sense to me. The clouds parted and a beam of sunlight comes down,” Thompson says. “At the end of the lecture, he says, ‘If you really want to know what I’m talking about, you should skip your pathology lecture on Friday and come to my clinic.’
“So, I skipped the pathology lecture and went to his clinic, and I loved it. He said, I’ve been giving that lecture for 10 years, and you’re the first person that took me up on the offer.”
Suddenly, Thompson was on a path to becoming one of the nation’s leading interventional pediatric cardiologists. In 2020, he joined the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Heart Institute. We recently explored his interests and career.
Did you always want to be a doctor?
I did, actually. I had to be in the hospital a few times when I was younger, and I remember how my doctor made me feel comfortable and safe. He was funny and I decided that’s how I want to make children feel. Later, I lost my mother to breast cancer, which exposed me to medicine in a different way.
How do you explain to families what an interventional cardiologist does?
I’ll tell people I’m a cardiologist and friends will say, “Oh, this is Jim. He’s a heart surgeon.” No, I’m not a heart surgeon. I explain to families and other people that I do things with catheters — thin tubes — that used to require surgery. I can close holes in the heart, open valves and put in valves with catheters.
You have been a pioneer in repairing heart defects using catheters, performing more than 1,500 such procedures. You were the first physician in the United States to use a novel transcatheter suture delivery system. What sparked that interest?
I was fortunate. I was doing my fellowship at UCSF in San Francisco in one of the centers that was investigating one of the newer devices, so it was kind of right place, right time. Then, I went into practice and not very many had the experience I had from the fellowship, so I brought the technology along and taught other people. I’ve gotten to work with many of the companies and keep up with the latest devices and techniques, so I’m the person many turn to for training.
At your previous hospital, you started an event that raised more than $1 million over the years. What caused you to embrace philanthropy to such a degree?
I learned very early that there’s no successful children’s hospital that doesn’t have a large portion of philanthropy. If I wanted things to improve at whatever institution, no one else was going to do it for me. The things that bring that little extra, that human touch, that extra patient and family experience require a little extra work to raise the funds. We’re starting a celebrity fishing tournament May 21, so we’re on the lookout for celebrities.
You also have taken on a leadership role in the community as a board member of the American Heart Association. Can you speak to that?
I was thinking about joining the board and also about who might support the celebrity fishing tournament. I remembered Kye Mitchell, COO at Kforce, who had supported our event in Virginia after I repaired her kids’ hearts. She had moved to Florida, but I didn’t know where. I checked LinkedIn and I messaged her. She immediately called me and said she was bringing her children to see me. She also told me she had recently become the chair of the local American Heart Association board and I said, “I guess I’m going to join your board!”
You mentioned your fellowship at UC-San Francisco. Did you know Heart Institute co-director Michael Puchalski, M.D., there?
We started our fellowships in San Francisco together, and we bonded immediately. Some people you just click with right away, and we’re like best friends. We’ve supported each other through personal and professional challenges. Our kids know each other and consider each other cousins. Mine call him Uncle Mike, and his call me Uncle Jim. My boys and I vacationed in Utah when he was working out there.
When he was looking at the job here, he called me one day and said, "You're moving to Florida," and hung up. What?
He started in August of 2020 and I started in November.