It all started on a dock at the Pacific Ocean. While shadowing paramedics, a 19-year-old college student was administering CPR — trying to save a life for the very first time — when her life’s purpose came into view.
Lorrel Toft, M.D., FACC, went on to graduate summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California, Irvine. She then completed medical school at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she was a member of Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. Toft remained at Johns Hopkins for her internal medicine residency and cardiology fellowship, earning numerous awards for her clinical and educational performance, including most outstanding graduate.
In total, Toft trained for 11 years at Johns Hopkins to become a cardiovascular critical care physician. While there, she was selected as assistant chief of service, which included chief resident responsibilities such as training first-year residents and running the busy Osler Internal Medicine hospital service.
“My role model and mentor at Johns Hopkins was Dr. Steve Schulman. He had an almost magical quality of arriving as soon as a patient needed CPR. Watching him direct resuscitation efforts was inspiring to me. I thought ‘if I can spend my career doing anything, it would be to teach people how to be as good as Dr. Schulman during a cardiac arrest situation.’”
Since her first time administering CPR on a dock, Toft has performed and directed CPR for hundreds of patients, has been part of miraculous saves — including a woman who received CPR for 60 minutes and walked out of the hospital 100% neurologically intact — and hears stories of lives saved as a result of her CPR trainings.
“When cardiac arrest occurs outside of a hospital setting, survival rates range from 2% to 15%. I grew frustrated with this situation because bystander CPR can double or even triple survival. My research career was born out of these experiences.” – Dr. Lorrel Toft
Following her heart
During her first clinical appointment, Toft observed cardiac arrest patient after patient arriving to the ICU without receiving bystander CPR. “Almost invariably, these patients would be alive in body, but with significant brain damage or even brain death. When cardiac arrest occurs outside of a hospital setting, survival rates range from 2% to 15%. I grew frustrated with this situation because bystander CPR can double or even triple survival,” Toft said. “My research career was born out of these experiences.”
According to the American Heart Association, 38 states, including Nevada, have passed laws requiring schools to train high school students in CPR before graduation. Toft is a leading national authority on CPR education in U.S. schools. “My passion is teaching CPR to the public and exploring new ways to do so,” she said.
Most recently, Toft served as an assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky. For several years, she trained Cardinal fans — about 22,000 each season — in hands-only CPR during halftime at University of Louisville basketball games. “I got to perform CPR on the jumbotron, basically my dream come true,” she said.
Toft won an American College of Cardiology Young Investigator Award in 2016 for her work teaching CPR to the public in Louisville. She also received a Stamler award from the Northwestern Cardiovascular Young Investigators’ Forum for her analysis of state-based legislation to teach CPR in schools.
She used the funds from the Stamler award to collaborate with award-winning film producer Martin Percy to create HEART CLASS. The HEART CLASS program uses interactive film to teach high school students throughout the U.S. how to perform CPR better. After exposing over 400 high schoolers to HEART CLASS, Toft and her team found the interactive program to be 50% more effective than traditional techniques for teaching students CPR.
As a result, the National Institutes of Health awarded Toft a grant to further develop HEART CLASS into an more compelling and interactive experience to save more lives.
In the heart of the Silver State
Toft’s arrival in northern Nevada was a collaborative recruitment between the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine and Carson Tahoe Health.
As an associate professor in UNR Med’s Department of Internal Medicine, Toft will teach cardiology, cardiovascular diseases, internal medicine and the importance of cardiac health across specialties. She will also foster and expand partnerships, working with UNR Med’s community cardiovascular physicians.
“We’re proud to be partnering with Carson Tahoe Health in bringing Dr. Toft and her expertise to our community, said UNR Med Dean Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D. “Toft will help develop high-quality cardiovascular care in the region and expand health care choices for patients.”
Toft brings with her a National Institutes of Health Small Business Technology Transfer grant to continue using interactive digital media to teach CPR to high school students.
“I have big dreams for research at UNR Med, including applying the methodology of HEART CLASS to other health topics to create an entire suite of films to teach high school students how to recognize and respond to leading causes of death.
As a cardiologist at Carson Tahoe Health, Toft will perform primary cardiology services such as diagnostics and echocardiograms.
“We’re extremely pleased to have Dr. Toft on board at Carson Tahoe Health to accommodate the increasing number of heart patients — a significant benefit to the community,” said Alan Garrett, president and CEO of Carson Tahoe Health. “It’s exciting that our partnership with UNR Med continues to grow every year.”
“I’m extremely excited and feel privileged to join the great people of UNR Med and Carson Tahoe Health and the northern Nevada communities and patients they serve,” Toft said. “I look forward to furthering the health and wellness of the community, advancing cardiology health care, and training the next generation of physicians and medical researchers.”