Posts Tagged ‘patient stories’

Pulmonary Valve Replacement: Andrew Sawyer’s Story

My name is Andrew Sawyer, and I’m 25 years old. Believe it or not, before I was 2 years old, I had 4 open-heart surgeries. I spent the first day of my life being transported by helicopter from Douglas, GA to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston for emergency surgery. It was there that Dr. Willis Williams performed 3 open-heart surgeries on me as he attempted to fit the right sized shunt into my heart. I was born without a pulmonary valve (a condition called pulmonary atresia), which prevented the normal flow of blood from my heart to my lungs from being replenished with oxygen.

I spent my first birthday in the hospital, where I underwent my 4th surgery. The surgeons had to place a patch over the area of my missing valve, allowing blood to flow through.

Surgery number five took place when I was in the sixth grade. The existing patch was beginning to fail, so this procedure involved the placement of a pulmonary cadaver valve, restructured my tricuspid valve, and repaired the lining of my right ventricle. Memory is a funny thing—I’ll never forget waking up from the surgery and learning that the Braves were losing to the Yankees in the World Series.

The surgeons predicted that my new pulmonary valve would last for 8-10 years, but remarkably, it lasted for 13. Once a year, I’d go in for my yearly check-up appointment and wonder if this would be the visit that the doctors told me that it was time for another surgery. Every year I heard the welcome words, “see you next year”—until the fall of October of 2009.

That fall, Dr. Book learned through my echocardiogram results that my pulmonary valve was damaged, and it was time for another surgery. I was amazed that the doctors were able to discover this through a simple echo, but technology had advanced since my last surgery, and a catheterization process was unnecessary this time around. Dr. Book and Dr. McConnell recommended that I see Dr. Kogon, a cardiothoracic surgeon specializing in adults with congenital heart defects.

From the start, I knew that I was in great hands with Dr. Kogon—he immediately made me feel at ease, and he was very clear in how he presented my options. I’m not sure I can accurately describe how surreal it was to have a conversation with Dr. Kogon about whether to go with a pig or a cow valve for my surgery. According to Dr. Kogon, there had been great advancements with animal tissue valves. He explained that this would be a better option than a human or mechanical valve—animal valves, for whatever reason, seem to last longer and yield better results. Dr. Kogon estimated that my new bovine valve would last 20-30 years.

Many people ask me if I was discouraged, or scared in reaction to the news of another surgery, but I can honestly say that I wasn’t. I’ve always had an extremely positive attitude throughout my life—this, coupled with my religious conviction carries me through tough times. Strange as it may sound, I compared the pain of my recovery period to one particularly tough summer job I had as a door-to-door salesman. That was one of the harshest, most emotionally taxing periods of my life, and it changed me somewhat. Being told “no” time and time again, and having to get up and hit the road again the next day requires strength and resilience. I realize I’m talking about two completely different types of pain here—but when I was lying in bed in pain post-surgery, that’s exactly what I thought about. I figured, “if I made it through that gut-wrenching summer of door-to-door sales, I can make it through this.”

When I think back to my 6th and most recent surgery, a few things come to mind: first, I couldn’t believe the level of service I experienced at Emory. The nurse technicians were incredibly kind and knowledgeable. I always had baths and a clean bed, and the overall level of care was just phenomenal. Even months after the operation, Dr. Kogon would stop by to visit me during my check-ups with Dr. Book and Dr. McConnell. Knowing I was in such good and capable hands was a comfort in itself.

My recovery experience as a 25-year-old was much different from my experience as a 12-year-old. The doctors explained the difference to me, saying that a 12-year-old body is made up of quite a bit of cartilage, as opposed to a 25-year-old, whose body is made up primarily of bone, causing recovery to be more painful. Even so, I was only in the hospital for 6 days, and I was able to get back to school (medication-free) within 30 days of the surgery.

Aside from being a student, I’m a musician, and over the years, my experiences have inspired me to write several songs, one of which is called “South Georgia Pine”—this video shows footage of me leaving Emory a few months after my last surgery.

I’m incredibly grateful to my family, and to all of the Emory doctors and nurse technicians who have supported me and helped me along on this journey to recovery.

Overcoming A-Fib at Emory


My name is Bill Hughes. I’m 73 years of age, and I’ve lived in West Point, Georgia for 25 years. For 35 years, I was employed by Neptune Technology Group, a company that manufactures and distributes water meters and automatic meter reading systems. When I retired in 2000, I was the national sales manager for water distribution. Now, I work as a consultant. I’m married, and I have two children and two grandchildren.

I first came to Emory Heart and Vascular in January of this year. Prior to this, I’d been seeing a cardiologist for about two and a half years for what they call “a-fib”, or atrial fibrillation. My heart was beating out of rhythm, and the situation was worsening. Despite all of my heart regulation medications, my heart just couldn’t stay in rhythm.

At one point, I was hospitalized for about three days while the doctors administered a very strong heart-regulating drug. Unfortunately, my body just wouldn’t accept it, and I had several unpleasant side effects from it. And still, the medication wasn’t keeping me in rhythm.

When you suffer from A-fib, you basically feel horrible the majority of the time. You lose all of your energy and strength, and feel as though you can hardly do anything—it’s as though you just exist. Sufficed to say, it was incredibly depressing for me. After dealing with A-fib for two and a half years, I had forgotten what it felt like to feel normal.

At that point, my cardiologist recommended Dr. DeLurgio at Emory, and suggested that he examine my case in order to pinpoint what type of procedure would improve my condition. I was concerned that it would be difficult to schedule an appointment with a heart doctor, but the folks at Emory were able to see me right away.

After he performed a thorough examination, Dr. DeLurgio informed me that my A-fib condition was a fairly severe case, and decided that I needed to have radiofrequency ablation. I had three procedures between January and March. During the first procedure I had some bleeding, so we had to stop the surgery. A few weeks later, they performed the second ablation, this time with much better results. Although I was feeling better than I had in a long time, I went back into the hospital a third time because I was experiencing what they call a “flutter”. The doctors determined that they needed to go back in one more time and fix whatever circuitry wasn’t working properly. This was completed in March, and was a total success.

I really appreciated how Dr. DeLurgio explained the ablation procedure beforehand and set the right expectations with me. In the beginning, he let me know that I may require more than one ablation procedure due to the severity and complexity of my case. From the start, I never doubted him or had any concerns.

Everyone at Emory treated me as though my case was very special. The nurses and physician’s assistants did a wonderful job of preparing me for the surgery. At the hospital, from the time I checked in to the time I left, everything went incredibly smoothly. I feel very fortunate to have been at Emory and to have had Dr. DeLurgio as my doctor.

Now, I’m feeling better every day, and I no longer have to take nearly as much medication, which is a huge advantage. I’m 73 years young and back in the gym, back on the golf course, and life is good again.

From Dr. DeLurgio:

Mr. Hughes represents a case of a patient with “permanent” atrial fibrillation. This is a more severe and far-progressed variety. Typically, treatment options are limited. Using advanced techniques, however, we were able to achieve excellent results while avoiding major surgical intervention. It is very gratifying to see how much improvement in his quality life Mr. Hughes has gained.

About David DeLurgio, MD:

Dr. DeLurgio has been practicing medicine at Emory since 1996. His specialties include Internal Medicine, Cardiology, Electrophysiology, and Cardiac Electrophysiology. Additionally, his areas of clinical interest include arrhythmias, atrial fibrillation and ablation therapy, prevention of sudden cardiac death, and treatment of heart failure with medical devices. Dr. DeLurgio holds organizational leadership memberships with the American College of Cardiology, the American College of Physicians, the Heart Failure Society, and the Heart Rhythm Society.

A Special One-Year VAD Anniversary

William Shaw & Kris Wittersheim (VAD Coordinator)

In May of 2009, William Shaw, who has suffered from congestive heart failure for years, figured he had about two weeks left to live. Shaw, 72, had been in and out of the hospital for four months due to various heart-related troubles.

“I was just going down,” Mr. Shaw remembered during a recent visit to the Emory Transplant Center. “At the time, I was so weak that I couldn’t even sit up on the bed. If you sat me up, I’d fall over.”

But on May 22, 2009, Mr. Shaw underwent surgery and was implanted with a Ventricular Assist Device (VAD). The VAD procedure, discussed in detail here, is an emerging option for three types of heart failure patients: transplant candidates who are too sick to wait for a heart to become available, patients who may be heart transplant candidates but aren’t currently eligible for various reasons—such as obesity or smoking—and are getting sicker, and patients who aren’t transplant candidates due to other medical issues, or who (as in Mr. Shaw’s case) are elderly.

Simply put, the surgeons place a rotary pump under the heart (in the abdomen) to take over the function of the left side of the heart. This pump is dependent upon electricity—either batteries or AC power—at all times. The VAD does what the ailing heart can no longer do – it sends blood and oxygen to all areas of the body. Consequently, the VAD decreases heart failure symptoms, increases activity and drastically improves quality of life.

On May 18, 2010, almost one year after undergoing surgery, Mr. Shaw came in for his monthly checkup with me. So, how’s he doing? Not only is he now sitting up on his own, he’s enjoying life again. He took a hunting trip last November to South Dakota with his two sons, he works out three times a week, and he takes part in a number of retirement activities.

“My lifestyle has improved from one year ago,” Mr. Shaw said. “On a scale of 1-10, if 1 is the poorest and 10 is the best, I’ve gone from a 1 or 2 to a 7 or 8.”

In Mr. Shaw’s case, the VAD is destination therapy – meaning he’s not waiting for a heart transplant to make him better. The VAD is the cure.

Since receiving the procedure, Mr. Shaw has become a positive example for other heart transplant patients as they consider VAD surgery. He was even recently featured on a FOX 5 news report:

And when he visits Emory Clinic for his monthly check-ups, he spends time talking to other heart patients, and always asks if there is someone waiting in the hospital or being evaluated for a VAD that he may be able to talk to. His hope is to help them understand what they might be facing. His newfound independence, age, and story of recovery are an inspiration to others.

“When you’re my age, we all have things we have to work around,” Shaw said during his visit. “I’m just very thankful that it has worked out for me. They have taken care of me very well at Emory.”