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Following her heart back to the things she loves

Jo-Ellen is ready to return to her active lifestyle. Thanks to Lenox Hill Heart & Lung, she can.

Woman in her 50s enjoys a sunny day.
Breathing clearly, Jo-Ellen enjoys a sunny day in the park.

Jo-Ellen Sarnelli has always been an active person. Living just a block away from the beach, the 54-year-old Island Park, NY, resident spends her weekdays commuting to Manhattan for work and her free time running along the water’s edge, riding bikes, enjoying the boardwalk and chasing after her four children.

Jo-Ellen is also an avid traveler. She and her husband love to visit the world’s most gorgeous landscapes—hiking, exploring and seeing the sights. She is particularly fond of visiting Italy, where her father was born. But all of those activities got sidelined when she started feeling tired and run-down a few years ago. 

“I’ve always been in pretty good shape but I started having trouble going up and down the subway stairs. I thought I was just slowing down a bit since I was getting older,” she said. “But then I took a spin class one day and thought I was going to pass out. I realized something wasn’t right and I needed to get checked out.”

Jo-Ellen went to see her primary care physician for a routine physical to figure out what might be going on. She said she hadn’t considered a heart issue. But when the doctor sent her for an echocardiogram, it revealed a problem with the mitral valve in her heart. To fix it, and get her energy back, she would need immediate surgery. But there was a catch. 

“I had breast cancer about 12 years ago. After my mastectomy, they built my new breast using tissue and muscle from my stomach, which is the way they did it at the time,” she explained. “Because that muscle feeds that tissue with blood, the doctors couldn’t cut through it—as they would in a traditional open-heart surgery, without risking the tissue dying. All of a sudden, what was supposed to be a pretty straightforward thing became a pretty complicated case. It was important to find the right doctor to help me.”

Jo-Ellen needed to find a surgeon that could offer her minimally invasive mitral valve surgery that could leave the vital muscle tissue, pulled across her chest, intact. Luckily, she comes from a family of nurses; they helped her research what procedures might be available to her, what to look for in a doctor and what questions to ask about different surgical options. After Jo-Ellen’s sister posted on a community social media page asking for recommendations for reputable heart surgeons, Jo-Ellen learned about Nirav Patel, MD, the vice chair of cardiothoracic surgery at Lenox Hill Heart & Lung

“Where other doctors tried to fit their expertise to my surgery, Dr. Patel offered personalized options and gave me a voice in what worked best for me,” she said. “He was able to do a minimally invasive procedure, making a small incision under the breast and get in to fix the valve.”

Jo-Ellen knew she had selected one of the best places in the country to receive this specialized care: Lenox Hill Heart & Lung was named one of Healthgrades’ 100 best heart programs in America, five years in a row—among the top 5% of programs in the U.S. But Jo-Ellen said that Dr. Patel had more than just the right kind of medical expertise. She said he and his team were thoughtful, accommodating and compassionate. 

“Dr. Patel is such a kind man. And certainly, I was looking for a surgeon with the right skillset but it’s just as important that a doctor be kind to the patient—and he really was,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of surgeries in my day and I can’t tell you how much that kindness can really make a difference.”

Woman walking on cobblestone path in city with trees in the background.
Back on the move, Jo-Ellen takes nothing for granted.

Within about two weeks, Jo-Ellen was up and about, feeling well enough to spend Christmas Eve with her family. At the six-week mark, she was already back making her regular commute from Long Island to Manhattan. And about five months after surgery, Jo-Ellen and her husband decided to visit the rustic villages and gorgeous landscapes of Cinque Terre, Italy.

“It’s just gorgeous there,” she said. “We hiked the trails through the towns and just had a wonderful time. We’re going back there again this June with the kids.”

Jo-Ellen credits Dr. Patel and her entire care team at Lenox Hill Heart & Lung for a successful mitral valve procedure, a smooth recovery and most importantly, for helping her to get back to doing all the things she loves.

“I’m very thankful. This surgery has allowed me to do the things I would not have been able to do otherwise,” she said. “Right away, I was back to working in the city. Right away, I was able to start swimming and exercising again. And then, of course, we started traveling again, too. It’s really been remarkable.”