John O’Connor’s journey coincides with the arrival of cardiothoracic surgeon Rohinton J. Morris, M.D.
On a Monday in November 2010, John O’Connor felt a little light-headed as he drove to work. When the 51-year-old Willow Grove man experienced a “little indigestion,” he asked a friend for a ride to Abington Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Trauma Center.
“The red light went off,” John recalls. “I had been seeing Dr. Fireman (Abington Memorial Cardiologist Andrew S. Fireman, MD) for years. I knew I had aortic stenosis (narrowing of the heart valve). But I probably hadn’t kept up with my echocardiograms as often as I should have.
“They took me right in at the ETC,” he continues. “The emergency and cardiology doctors didn’t take chances. I was admitted for a full workup.”
John’s echocardiogram showed significant deterioration of his aortic valve. The aortic valve is one of four valves that allows the heart to pump blood in one direction. When a valve degenerates, blood flow is obstructed to vital organs and may also backflow during heart beats.
With the recent appointment of Rohinton J. Morris, MD as chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery, the Pilla Heart Center gains the longstanding expertise of a highly recognized cardiothoracic and transplant surgeon.
For John, that meant being in the right place at the right time. After a cardiac catheterization to provide a ‘roadmap’ to the heart, John met the surgeon whose skill has saved thousandsof hearts.
“Dr. Morris explained everything,” he recalls. “We talked the whole thing out – the procedure and the types of valves that are used in replacements. I felt my anxiety melting away.”
John initially decided to go with a biological valve (made from animal tissue) due to his concern about having to take blood thinning medication, as he would with a mechanical valve.
Dr. Morris notes, “We want the patient to feel comfortable with every aspect of the procedure, helping them make informed decisions. Because of John’s age, he would likely have needed a second replacement in 10-15 years. Each type of valve has a longevity ‘estimate’ attached, as well as other considerations. The foremost issue for John was that his existing native aortic valve was no longer keeping pace. He faced a life-threatening situation without a replacement.”
John also leaned heavily on the knowledge of his sister, a cardiac catheterization nurse in Massachusetts. She had helped him prepare mentally for his cardiac catheterization, but expressed concern with his choice of heart valve.
“Thinking about my heart, my decision, my future…at one point I just started crying,” John recalls. “I called Dr. Morris. He took all the time in the world to go over the choices again. He took all the worry away.”A week and a day after his initial hospitalization, John met Dr. Morris before surgery. “He marked my chest where the incision would be. I thanked him for his ‘signature,’” he laughs. “I knew I was in the best hands possible.”
Dr. Morris explains the procedure. “After entering the patient’s chest, we attach the heart to a heart-lung machine. This continues the flow of oxygen-rich blood through the body while a respirator breathes for the patient.
“John ultimately decided to go with a mechanical valve,” Dr. Morris adds. “We removed the diseased tissue and inserted the new valve in its place. The mechanical valve worked perfectly and the heart was working better after relieving the pressure from the obstructed native valve.”
John recalls waking to find the surgery already over. “Soon the staff was asking if I felt ready to come off the respirator. I gave them a thumbs-up.”
He continued to progress quickly, walking the halls a bit at a time. “Everyone I met was terrific. Dr. Morris and Dr. Garrido (cardiothoracic surgeon Mauricio Garrido, MD) visited me every day. Abington Memorial Hospital will forever be my family.
“In about 75 hours, start to finish, I walked out of Abington Memorial Hospital with a new heart valve. It’s just amazing.
“I can’t believe I was lucky enough to be Dr. Morris’ first valve patient at Abington Memorial Hospital,” John says.
He carries the autograph right over his heart.