After decades of sharing a life together, Mary and John Ross shared consecutive heart procedures in 2016. It was remarkable circumstances that brought them both to Queen of the Valley Medical Center as patients within two weeks of each other.
HELP JUST AROUND THE CORNER
In March 2016, John, 77, started experiencing dizziness. His cardiologist, Sergio Manubens, MD, with St. Joseph Health Medical Group, identified an irregular heart rhythm and prescribed medications that helped for a time. Then in May, things got more serious.
“He just dropped to the floor one day,” said Mary, 67, his wife of more than 25 years. She called 911, and paramedics brought John to the Queen— just 5 minutes from their house — where hospital staff stabilized his heart rhythm. He returned home that night, but fainted again a few days later.
That’s when Dr. Manubens recommended surgery to replace his aortic valve. It didn’t come as a surprise to John; Dr. Manubens had been monitoring the narrowing valve for months and had predicted John might need the surgery soon. “Six months go by, and bingo — it was right on the money,” John said.
Cardiovascular surgeon Robert Klingman, MD, performed the aortic valve replacement on May 12 at Queen of the Valley Medical Center. John’s natural aortic valve was replaced with a bioprosthetic valve, an aortic valve from a pig sewn into a metal ring.
“They behave more like your own valves, and they don't require long-term blood thinners,” Dr. Manubens explained. The surgery went well, and after eight days in the hospital, John returned home to complete his recovery.
Little did they know, however, it was just the beginning of John and Mary’s adventure.
A ROUTINE CHECKUP TURNS SERIOUS
Two weeks after John’s surgery, Mary had an appointment of her own with Dr. Manubens. Though she felt drained from John’s ordeal, she kept the appointment. “I try to stay on top of my health, at least getting my checkups,” she said.
When Dr. Manubens asked how she was feeling, Mary mentioned a few issues she felt were minor. But Dr. Manubens heard something else. “She was fatigued, but also she described some symptoms of breathlessness with physical activity,” he said. That’s the most common symptom of ischemic heart disease, or coronary artery disease. He also heard Mary describe occasional pressure and discomfort in her chest.
“She was having new symptoms,” he said.
Dr. Manubens ordered a stress test, which showed some worrisome abnormalities, and then an angiogram. “Sure enough, we found that she had a very complex type of blockage in one of the arteries in the front part of the heart, which is the most important artery in terms of supplying the heart with blood,” he said. Dr. Manubens recommended an angioplasty to insert a stent to take care of the blockage. It was scheduled for the following week.
Dr. Manubens asked a colleague, James Srebro, MD, also a cardiologist with St. Joseph Health Medical Group, to assist him with the procedure on May 31. “When I'm doing a complex procedure, I like to have a second cardiologist in the room,” Dr. Manubens said, explaining that the procedure involves the manipulation of many wires and balloons.
Dr. Srebro was happy to help. “The surgery requires three hands,” he said, “and God didn’t give us that.”
Once the procedure began, however, Drs. Manubens and Srebro discovered more blockages than were visible on the angiogram. It required them to insert a total of four stents.
As with John, the procedure was successful, and Mary stayed at the Queen just two nights. “Our daughters, Mariah and Jackie provided great comfort, helping us rest and heal.”
Though their friends and family couldn’t believe that John and Mary had been in the Queen’s cardiac care unit just two weeks apart, Dr. Srebro said it’s not terribly uncommon.
Dr. Manubens agrees that health issues can cluster in families. “There's always a patient behind the patient,” he said. A patient’s family member may feel stress that affects their own health, or they may have an unrelated condition that they neglect or fail to notice while a loved one is ill.
Mary thinks about what would have happened had she not gone to the checkup that allowed Dr. Manubens to find the first blockage. It’s common knowledge that women often put their own health on the back burner. “I just am glad I said something, and glad he listened as deeply as he did,” she said.
“[Dr.] Manubens is like a saint to us,” added John. “He just talks to you. He wants to make sure you’re OK.”
HOW THEY’RE DOING NOW
Mary is back to working five days a week, but she’s trying to take it easy. “If I need time off, I just take it,” she said. John is retired, but keeps busy selling a line of furniture he makes from wine barrels.
John goes to a cardiac rehabilitation program that includes physical therapy, and Mary is participating in a weight management program and physical therapy.
Both say they feel good physically. “I don’t have many aches and pains,” John said. And Mary says she is noticeably less tired. “When you start to feel good again, you say, ‘Oh, wow, this is how it feels.’ Over time, I had accepted not feeling great. That was my mistake.”
They’re eating better, too, John said, noting that he only goes to In-N-Out Burger every couple of months now. “I’m 77, I still want to enjoy some of my old favorites.”
Mary said the experiences definitely changed their life, and she and John have committed to taking things a little easier from now on. “Fortunately,” she said, “It’s pretty easy to enjoy life in the Napa Valley.”
Photos by Charlie Gesell.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.