Rare Procedure Saves Life of Unlikely Heart Patient
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Rare Procedure Saves Life of Unlikely Heart Patient

Kathleen O'Donnell is living proof that appearances can be deceiving.

At age 44 and in great physical condition, this hedge fund manager and part-time personal trainer seemed the picture of perfect health. Yet, on May 8, her heart revealed a very different story.

"I was working out in my home with a client when I began to feel light-headed," says O'Donnell. "My client went to get me a drink from the kitchen, and when she returned I was slumped over and had stopped breathing."

O'Donnell had gone into cardiac arrest.

It took first responders several attempts to resuscitate her and five days more before she regained full consciousness in the intensive care unit at Montefiore's Moses Campus.

"Those first few days were really touch and go," O'Donnell says. "My parish priest even came to read me my last rites."

O'Donnell learned she had severe mitral valve regurgitation, a critically serious heart disorder that causes blood to leak back across the valve and into her lungs rather than flowing forward into her arteries. It results in congestion of the lungs as they fill with fluid and is associated with fatigue, shortness of breath and eventually heart failure. This was a contributing factor in O'Donnell's cardiac arrest.

To treat her damaged mitral valve, Robert Michler, MD, Surgeon-in-Chief, Professor and Chairman, Department of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, Professor and Chairman, Department of Surgery, and Co-Director, Montefiore Einstein Center for Heart & Vascular Care, used an exquisite technical approach called the "butterfly procedure" to fix O'Donnell's damaged mitral valve. The butterfly procedure involves careful analysis of the diseased valve, visualizing in the mind's eye of the surgeon where to precisely cut a butterfly-shaped segment of abnormal tissue, and then creatively and meticulously suturing the delicate wings together again. Dr. Michler is one of only a few surgeons in the nation performing this remarkable procedure.

"It is a privilege to hold a person's heart in one's hands. Restoring heart function and an excellent quality of life to our patients is our greatest reward. To see a beautiful young woman like Kathy O'Donnell returned to good health gives us great pride and appreciation for the skills of our team," says Dr. Michler. He adds, "Serious heart valve disease affects about one in every 40 Americans and is found equally among men and women. The challenge is properly diagnosing it, because the signs of mitral valve disease, fatigue or shortness of breath, can be easily misunderstood."

"Dr. Michler was lovely," says O'Donnell. "He explained everything to me so clearly and even showed me a video of the procedure beforehand. I know this would have made many people squeamish, but I thought it was really cool."

A week after her mitral valve repair, O'Donnell was fitted with a defibrillator by Soo Kim, MD, Attending Cardiologist, Montefiore Medical Center, to guard against future cardiac arrest.

Her symptoms are gone, and she returned to her full-time job. She even recently traveled to Ireland for a relative's wedding.

"I credit my life to the expertise of the doctors and nurses at Montefiore who cared for me," says O'Donnell. "They were consummate professionals and extremely helpful to both me and my family."