Neil DeMaio (right) hugs nurse practitioner Blerta Saipi outside Staten Island University Hospital

The next battle: A veteran fights heart attack

Neil DeMaio survived 26 years in the US Army, including a deployment in Iraq. Thanks to coronary artery bypass grafting, he’s returned to civilian life.

Neil DeMaio enlisted in the US Army in 1978 to support his family and serve his country, which included responding to natural disasters and other crises across the country. "Anywhere they needed me, ice storms, hurricanes — I was there,” said the father of three.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 changed his mission. As a first responder at Ground Zero, he "worked the pile, the morgue…breathing the dust." 

In 2004, Mr. DeMaio was deployed to the frontlines in Iraq, where he was stationed 40 miles north of Baghdad at the Logistical Support Area Anaconda. While his primary responsibility was to fix vehicles and pull convoy detail, he was forced to constantly look over his shoulder. 

Anaconda, infamously referred to as “Mortaritaville” for its frequent, indiscriminate mortar attacks from insurgents, was the second largest US stronghold in the region. 

According to Mr. DeMaio, some of the locals didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat. “We would be out providing convoy security, we’d hit mines, IED’s (improvised explosive devices). People would shoot at us. You know…typical war things,” he quipped. 

But for all the dodged bullets and near misses, another battle was on his horizon in 2016 — failed arteries in his heart, with a blockage commonly known as the "widow maker."

“I was at home, I felt the chest pain,” Mr. DeMaio said. He knew the pain from a previous heart attack in 2012, so he immediately went to Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH). Doctors there told him he needed open-heart surgery due to the arteries in his heart closing.

“When the beginning part of that left anterior descending (LAD) artery fails, it cuts off blood supply to the heart muscle, causing a massive damage,” said Frank Rosell, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at SIUH’s The Heart Institute

Aside from the LAD, Mr. DeMaio had additional coronary artery bypass grafting on two vessels and is back to civilian life.

"The experience of being in the service and following orders their whole lives tends to benefit veterans," Dr. Roselle said. "After surgery, they take well to doing rehabilitation, taking medications and following a heart-healthy diet."

Mr. DeMaio considers The Heart Institute’s staff as an extension of his military family. "They’re well trained at what they do, and making sure you’re keeping up with your medications," he said. "They bring it across in a family way that you can sit down and talk to them, because I can be stubborn, and say, 'no.' Then they’ll come back and say, 'Yes.' You better go do it."

As Veteran’s Day celebrates the end of The Great War and World War I this year, Dr. Roselle noted the service of Mr. DeMaio and other veterans, and the care they need upon returning from active duty.

"We have a very active population of veterans on Staten Island, and they’re very strong at facing tense situations and life-threatening conditions," said Dr. Roselle. "Unfortunately, we do see them frequently with major heart trouble. Being able to care for them after all they’ve done for us is a humbling experience."

The Heart Institute features more than 40 clinicians working to keep you healthy.