NEW HYDE PARK, NY – At 85, Joan Schmid is a vivacious woman who walks daily, enjoys kayaking and regularly takes trips to exotic locales around the world. But, two years ago her active lifestyle was nearly stopped by a type of heart disease known as severe aortic stenosis.
“I never had a heart problem or heart disease of any type,” said Mrs. Schmid.
But, the Vermont woman did get winded easily. Whenever she asked her doctors about it, she was told, “That’s OK, that’s just the way you breathe.”
Aortic stenosis causes a narrowing of the aortic valve, which forces the heart to work harder to push blood through the body. As the heart stresses, it usually causes fatigue, pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, and the sensation of a rapid or irregular heartbeat.
Mrs. Schmid experienced some of these symptoms in April 2013 while visiting her son Douglas and his family in Long Island. After seeing a Broadway play, things started to go awry.
“Doug and I were walking ahead from the theater to the restaurant and she was walking with our two sons,” remembered her daughter-in-law, Patricia Schmid. “They were walking very slowly. When we turned around, she looked like she was having a great deal of difficulty breathing, kind of huffing and puffing.”
Patricia, a registrar and cancer data analyst at the Tumor Registry at Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Medical Center, knew something was wrong. The next day, she told S. Jacob Scheinerman, MD, then the vice chair of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at LIJ, about what happened. He told her to bring her mother-in-law in immediately.
“When I hear about an acute acceleration of symptoms like that, I get really worried that something bad can happen to the patient,” said Dr. Scheinerman, who was recently appointed the chair of cardiothoracic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital.
An echocardiogram showed a blockage in Mrs. Schmid’s aortic valve.
“She was in congestive heart failure,” explained Dr. Scheinerman. “Once you develop symptoms of congestive heart failure, your 1- to 2-year survival is probably about 50 percent if nothing is done other than medical therapy.”
It was decided that open heart surgery to perform an aortic valve replacement, was necessary.
During the three-hour-long surgery, Dr. Scheinerman made a six-inch incision down the center of Mrs. Schmid’s breastbone, dividing it to get direct access to her heart. She was placed on a heart-lung machine to perform the work of those organs while the surgeon replaced her diseased aortic valve with one made out of animal tissue.
“He’s a wonderful, wonderful doctor. He saved my life,” said Mrs. Schmid. “He told me ‘I gave you 15 years.’”
For Mrs. Schmid, who’s visited Thailand, Africa, Australia and Alaska over the last few years, that’s a good thing.
“I still have countries that I want to see,” she said.