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By Javed Butler, MD

February means heart health awareness, but taking care of your heart requires a year-round commitment that has lifelong benefits. What will you do differently to take better care of your heart?

Heart disease can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age or background. That’s why all of our cardiac care experts at Stony Brook University Heart Institute remain focused on how to best prevent heart disease and heal the heart.

We fight cardiovascular disease from every angle, using the best that cardiovascular medicine can offer: risk factor prevention; state-of-the-art diagnostics, such as 3D cardiovascular imaging; advanced minimally invasive procedures with robotic assistance; and transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) for inoperable aortic stenosis. In the hands of our cardiac experts, these and other cardiac advancements are used to address each patient’s unique situation.

Our ventricular assist device (VAD) program is the most experienced program on Long Island and the first to achieve national accreditation. It offers patients who are ineligible for a heart transplant a way to temporarily or permanently support heart function and heart flow. Patients who are eligible for a heart transplant but are too sick to wait for a suitable donor can also be helped by a VAD device.

The Heart Institute also features both a Valve Center and an Aortic Center where patients are evaluated by multiple cardiac specialists who create individualized treatment plans. Our Chest Pain Center is one of the few accredited centers in New York State. Our Endovascular Rapid Response Team is available 24/7 to treat aortic dissections/ruptures. Stony Brook is consistently recognized by the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association’s Get With The Guidelines® Heart Failure Gold Quality Performance Achievement Award.

Do something good for your heart by getting involved in your own heart health. On Feb. 24, join us at Smith Haven Mall food court for blood pressure screenings at 8 a.m. and a heart health lecture at 9 a.m.

Our popular spring event, Keeping Your Heart Healthy at Any Age dinner and panel discussion will be held on Wednesday, May 11, at 5:30 p.m. at Stony Brook University. Register now at www.stonybookmedicine.edu/hearthealthy.

Have a question about heart disease prevention? Seeking a solution to a cardiac problem? Call us at 631-44-HEART (444-3278). We’re ready to help.

Dr. Javed Butler is co-director of the Heart Institute and chief of the Division of Cardiology at Stony Brook Medicine.

Uerda Zena colors before her heart procedure last week. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt

A 4-year-old girl from Kosovo is recovering after a life-saving heart operation on Long Island, thanks to the work of local volunteers.

Mom Barbara Zena comforts Uerda as she recovers from her heart procedure. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt
Mom Barbara Zena comforts Uerda as she recovers from her heart procedure. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt

It took a village to support Uerda Zena. Rotary groups throughout Suffolk lent a hand to the girl and her mother, Barbara, through the Gift of Life program, which works to provide such stateside heart procedures to children from around the globe. Uerda’s Nov. 4 surgery to repair a hole in her heart the size of a nickel was a milestone effort that celebrated the Rotary program’s 40th anniversary.

The atrial septal defect closure performed on Uerda at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn will add 60 or more years to the little girl’s life, Port Jefferson Rotary member Debbie Engelhardt explained, but the surgery was not available in her home nation.

Engelhardt, who is also the director of the Comsewogue Public Library, said more than 19,000 children from dozens of countries have received life-saving surgeries since the Gift of Life program was born in Suffolk County four decades ago and expanded through Rotary International.

The medical team that took care of Uerda Zena, including Dr. Levchuck second from right, surrounds mom Barbara Zena. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt
The medical team that took care of Uerda Zena, including Dr. Levchuck second from right, surrounds mom Barbara Zena. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt

Rotary groups in the county are still going strong with Gift of Life, which is doubling up its efforts by providing doctors and medical staff in other countries with equipment and training to perform the heart procedures themselves.

“It’s a unique, renowned and respected Rotary-run program,” Engelhardt said.

Dr. Sean Levchuck, the pediatric cardiologist who performed the life-saving procedure on Uerda at St. Francis, described it as minimally invasive. To close the nickel-sized hole, he fed a catheter “the size of a coffee stirrer” into a vein in her leg and up to her heart, where the catheter deployed a device that, once placed in the hole, expanded to plug it. The cardiologist had to position the device properly while Uerda’s heart was still beating, mostly using ultrasound imaging to guide him.

Barbara Zena and daughter Uerda have fun at Chuck E. Cheese. Photo from Joe DeVincent
Barbara Zena and daughter Uerda have fun at Chuck E. Cheese. Photo from Joe DeVincent

The doctor said the procedure took between 45 minutes to an hour and required a team of nurses, an anesthesiologist and techs to assist with the imaging. The hospital donated the use of its facility and staff for the procedure.

Levchuck does about 15 of those procedures a year for Gift of Life, he said, with a fair number of the child recipients coming from Eastern European countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. He also sees kids from places like Haiti and Jamaica.

Just like in those other nations, the procedure to repair a hole in a child’s heart is not available in Kosovo, Levchuck said, because the hospitals don’t have the resources to train their staffs to do it. And the kids who are born with those defects are more prone to pneumonia or respiratory infections, which could also be difficult to treat in a developing nation.

“Problems in this country that are seemingly innocent take a whole new look” in places like Kosovo, the doctor said. But he is willing to help: “Keep ‘em coming. … It’s easy to donate time.”

In Uerda’s case, plenty of Long Islanders donated their time, with many people pitching in to make the girl’s medical procedure a reality. Sayville Rotarian Joe DeVincent wrote letters to get the girl a visa, and she and her mother are staying with a host family in Northport while here. DeVincent has also provided transportation to the Kosovan mother and daughter.

Uerda Zena and mom Barbara are all smiles while in the U.S. to repair the girl's heart defect Photo from Joe DeVincent
Uerda Zena and mom Barbara are all smiles while in the U.S. to repair the girl’s heart defect Photo from Joe DeVincent

The endeavor to save Uerda had an additional element of kids helping other kids — students at St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, one of whom is Levchuck’s son, raised funds to bring the girl to the United States from her home in the Kosovan capital, Pristina, where her mother works at a bakery and her father at a public works plant.

“They’re a fine group of students over there that championed a cause,” the doctor said about the St. Anthony’s kids. “When you see something like that, you really get a nice warm feeling about the future.”

Uerda will be staying stateside for a little while longer, and Rotarians are trying to show her a good time. She has already gone on a play date to Chuck E. Cheese and visited a children’s museum, DeVincent said, and this weekend she will go into New York City with her mother and some native Long Islanders to visit Times Square and Rockefeller Center.

“Uerda really enjoys being with her mother,” DeVincent said.

And she has more energy to do these things than before.

After a heart procedure, Uerda Zena is now healthier than ever. Photo from Joe DeVincent
After a heart procedure, Uerda Zena is now healthier than ever. Photo from Joe DeVincent

“Her heart’s working better, her circulation’s better,” the Rotarian said. “The kid generally feels better than she has in her whole life. So this is a very happy story.”

Uerda will also appear at a Taste of Smithtown, an event in St. James on Nov. 17, where there will be food from restaurants along the North Shore. The 10th annual event will run from 6 to 9 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz of Smithtown on Middle Country Road and will benefit the Gift of Life program, along with the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry and the Smithtown Children’s Foundation.

The plan is for the Zenas to head home on Nov. 22, to be reunited with Uerda’s father and her 18-month-old brother.

“Her mother is in touch with her family in Europe through her cell phone and … Uerda has spoken to her brother over the cell phone,” DeVincent said. “She’s actually very maternal toward her younger brother.”

It is a happy ending for both the Kosovo family and Suffolk County Rotarians.

“When you’re doing something like this with an adorable 4-year-old child, it brings you tremendous satisfaction,” DeVincent said. “This is the best way to spread happiness, certainly for these children and their parents but also for yourself. Nothing that I do or have done in my life has brought me as much joy.”

Michele Martines smiles with her son Christian, 21, prior his heart transplant at Westchester Medical Center on Saturday. Photo from Michele Martines

A call at 11:47 p.m. last Friday changed the life of a 21-year-old Greenlawn man and his family for the better. On the other end of the line was a heart.

With tears of joy streaming down her face, Michele Martines gracefully accepted the heart on behalf of her son, Christian Siems, who was in desperate need of a transplant after suffering from congestive heart failure as a result of a genetic disease.

“We packed everything; we were running around scared trying to call people,” Martines said describing the moments after finding out her son would be getting a new heart.

Martines said she was overwhelmed with emotion as the moment she had been waiting for happened. She was happy and scared for her son, but she said he was ready.

“He was ready to go, ready to go, ready to go,” Martines said. “He wanted the heart.”

The quest for a new heart began on June 28, 2012, when Siems tried to donate blood at school. A nurse noticed he had an irregular heartbeat and suggested he see a doctor. His mom took him to the pediatrician, who suggested he see a cardiologist.

After having an echocardiogram, a test used to see how the heart is beating and pumping blood, he had to undergo an immediate test that showed his heart was functioning at less than 20 percent capacity. Doctors had to install a defibrillator, which delivers a dose of electrical energy to the heart, because Siems was at risk of cardiac arrest.

The condition was manageable with medication until last September, when Martines noticed something wasn’t right with her son.

“His heart started to fail,” Martines said.

Doctors found 80 pounds of fluid in his body as a result of congestive heart failure. He was rushed to Huntington Hospital and then airlifted to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, where he went into severe cardiac arrest.

“He was dying,” his mom said.

Siems underwent surgery and was living because a machine and a mechanical device helped his heart beat, Martines said.

Finally, in November, he was well enough to come home and his mom stepped in to tend to him as they patiently waited for a heart. While he was a priority on the donor list, some people can wait as long as 20 years, according to Siems’ doctor Alan Gass, the family’s cardiologist.

Gass said Siems was in need of a transplant and was lucky his wait was just months instead of years. Another factor helping the young man with his condition was his age, the doctor said.

“Young people can compensate well, even though they are getting worse quicker,” Gass said.

But while Siems was able to compensate, young people fall apart quickly, and his heart was deteriorating even though he was being treated for his condition. The need for a heart was vital.

On Saturday, just 12 hours after appearing at a press conference with County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in an effort to promote organ donation, Siems received the call that a heart was ready for him.

The family got into the car to drive to the hospital in Valhalla and anxiously waited for the surgery. At 7 a.m., the family said their goodbyes as Siems was wheeled off to get the heart he had been desperately waiting for.

While her son was getting prepped for the surgery, Martines was pacing back and forth, and ultimately she came in contact with the doctors who had her son’s new heart in a cooler. The small amount of doubt she had disappeared, as she said she knew her son was going to be just fine.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It made it real that it was really happening.”

After a few minor complications and 14 hours in surgery, Siems’ new heart was in his chest and ready to go. And while he was unable to speak following his surgery, he used a pen and paper to let his loved ones and doctor know he was doing just fine.

“The best I felt in five years,” the white piece of paper read. The family teared up at the note. Siems’ dad, Gerald “Gerry” Siems, who was also a heart transplant recipient, died in 2013.

The young man is expected to stay in the hospital for roughly two weeks, according to Gass. In a few weeks, he will be able to return to a normal life, which entails playing sports and doing what he loves.

While Siems’ story ended well, the wait for organ donations may be far too long for some people. According to LiveOnNY, a nonprofit organ donor network, roughly 10,000 New Yorkers are waiting for various organ donations at any given time. On average, 18 people die every day while waiting for organ transplants in the U.S., according to the group’s website.

One donor can save and improve the lives of 58 people through organ and tissue donation. To learn more about organ donation, visit www.donatelifeny.org.