Having a condition that requires cardiac surgery can be scary. It’s helpful to know you’re not alone and that recovery is possible. Our videos and stories illustrate how surgical treatment at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health changed the lives of people like you. Also see our structural heart disease patient stories and electrophysiology patient stories.
"Virginia Mason Franciscan Health got me on the mountain again, and I have never felt better!"
Barry Spector, 64, is in good health today and is glad to have found a primary care provider at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health he can rely on to keep it that way. "He addresses any concerns I have quickly," says Barry, who has faced serious medical challenges in the past. Barry's first health crisis occurred when he was 37 and living in Boston. He was part owner of a successful business selling personal computers, and his life seemed to be on track. But then he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a serious cancer that affects the body's blood and lymphatic systems. Barry successfully completed chemotherapy and radiation treatments and was in good health in 1989 when he moved to Seattle.
“I wasn't a Virginia Mason Franciscan Health patient at the time, but it didn't matter. They took great care of me.”
Soon after the move, Barry went to work for Microsoft and held a variety of positions within the company before retiring 18 years later. It was an unexpectedly dramatic departure. As Barry was preparing to go in for his last day on the job in 2008, he experienced shortness of breath and jaw pain. Concerned, he went to the Virginia Mason Franciscan Health Emergency Department, and things moved quickly after that.
"I wasn't a Virginia Mason Franciscan Health patient at the time, but it didn't matter," remembers Barry. "They took great care of me." Virginia Mason Franciscan Health physicians were able to find a blockage in the left descending artery of Barry's heart. This artery is also known as "the widow maker" for the number of deaths attributed to its blockage.
During an emergency procedure in the Cardiac Catheterization Lab, a Virginia Mason Franciscan Health cardiologist put a stent in the artery to reopen it. Barry felt better almost immediately and says that the procedure "probably saved my life."
While he was hospitalized for his heart problem, tests showed Barry had a low iron count. "That's when I got to see the team approach at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health." Tests and follow-ups continued after Barry's release and, eventually, he was found to have carcinoids of the small intestines, a slow-growing cancer.
During this time, Barry connected with the doctor who would become, and still is, his personal physician. Barry's wife, Karen, has also become a patient. "It's pretty easy for us to get our questions answered and to get seen quickly if there's anything we're concerned about."
The operation to remove the carcinoids was successful, and today Barry isn't focused on any particular health concerns. He and Karen are too busy fly fishing and being world travelers.
Daniel Lo, 77, was diagnosed in 2010 with multiple myeloma, a relatively rare cancer affecting plasma cells in the bone marrow. The condition was discovered when Daniel was scheduled for open-heart surgery to repair blockages found during a routine angiogram. The diagnosis was a surprise since Daniel had none of the symptoms of multiple myeloma, which include fatigue and problems with bruising and bleeding.
The heart surgery was canceled, and Daniel began chemotherapy while his family gathered round to lend their support. Daniel and his wife, Colleen, had raised three sons and were looking forward to a move to Edmonds following his retirement after 40 years as a pharmacist in the Tacoma area.
"There was a lot going on for us," says Daniel. Rather than open-heart surgery, his cardiologist decided to put in stents while Daniel continued his chemotherapy. He and Colleen made the move to Edmonds, and for a couple of years, Daniel was relatively stable. But in May 2012, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, an inability of the heart to pump adequately. Symptoms include shortness of breath, fluid retention and rapid heartbeat.
Daniel's daughter-in-law, who is a nurse, recommended he transfer his cardiac care to Virginia Mason Franciscan Health. "It was a good move," says Daniel. He desperately needed open-heart surgery, but it was considered too risky because of his ongoing chemotherapy for the multiple myeloma. The Virginia Mason Franciscan Health doctor gave Daniel hope that the surgery could be done. In late spring 2014, Daniel was well enough to go off chemotherapy for two months, a requirement for the surgery to be scheduled.
“The multiple myeloma made it a big risk, but because they took that risk, I got my life back.”
In June, the open-heart surgery was done to replace Daniel's mitral and aortic valves. During the hours-long operation, Colleen was surrounded by family and appreciated the Virginia Mason Franciscan Health practice of frequent updates on how the surgery was progressing.
By the time Daniel was out of recovery and into intensive care, he was "really doing well." He could tell right away, he says, that the surgery was successful because of the way he felt. After seven days in the hospital, Daniel went to a transitional rehab facility and then home. For now, Daniel doesn't need to resume chemotherapy since tests show that he is "stable." There is no cure for multiple myeloma.
Today, Daniel goes to the gym regularly to do exercises that keep his heart strong. "And I go for walks just like a normal person," he says with a laugh. He adds that one of the things he appreciates most about his care at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health is that the doctors decided to do the surgery at all. "The multiple myeloma made it a big risk," says Daniel, "but because they took that risk, I got my life back."
People sometimes say to Fred Miller, 75, "I want to look as good as you do.” He gives Virginia Mason Franciscan Health cardiologists a lot of the credit for that. When Fred recently had an episode of angina—pain in the chest when the heart isn't getting enough oxygen-rich blood—his primary care physician did an EKG on his heart. It looked fine. Further testing, however, revealed that Fred's coronary arteries were not functioning properly, and two weeks later he was admitted to Virginia Mason Franciscan Health for quintuple-bypass surgery on his heart.
Four days later, Fred says he was feeling good enough to go home. His physical therapist, however, said he wasn't going anywhere until he could walk down the hall and up some stairs on his own. Fred just couldn't do it. That same morning, one of his cardiologists came by to check on him. "He's the kind of person who lights up a room," says Fred, "and he inspired me to keep trying." That evening, when the physical therapist came back, he walked down the hall and up the stairs. No problem.
“It's wonderful to feel so good and to want to take walks and be active. I don't worry about my health. If I have any concerns, they're going to be addressed quickly by my doctors at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health. I'm confident about that.”
A successful businessman, Fred sold his laminated art business three years ago and today keeps active on his 5-acre property in Monroe, Washington, where he and his wife, Renee, look after two dogs and three horses. Fred continues to be monitored closely at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, and he appreciates that the medical center "is exceptionally well run. When they say, 'team medicine,' they mean it. Everyone contributes to answering your questions and helping you get better."
Not long ago, a CT scan at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health revealed a block in Fred's carotid artery. Surgery was one of the treatment options, and Fred is glad he made that decision. During the operation, physicians found that the blockage was much worse than the CT scan showed. "I feel like the doctors pay close attention to everything, and if they find a problem, the attitude is 'let's find a solution.'"
Fred says that he's had no side effects from his surgeries. To make sure his heart stays healthy, he does special workouts with a trainer whose father had open-heart surgery. "I'm looking forward to spring so I can get outside more," he says. "It's wonderful to feel so good and to want to take walks and be active. I don't worry about my health. If I have any concerns, they're going to be addressed quickly by my doctors at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health. I'm confident about that."