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Heart surgery helps break through health roadblock

Yolanda Butler’s experience at Lenox Hill Heart & Lung inspires her to cook more healthfully.

Smiling woman standing in front of kitchen counter.
Since her heart surgery, Yolanda Butler has found balance and a love of cooking.

Every day, Yolanda Butler gets on the commuter bus from Teaneck, New Jersey, to head to her job as director of Building Operations and Administration at the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Several months ago, during the short walk from the bus stop to her office, she started experiencing a fleeting but painful burning sensation in her chest. “It would hit me, then stop,” says Yolanda, the mom of two boys and a self-described workaholic. But over the next several weeks, the episodes worsened. The pain got more intense and would last for longer periods of time.

She saw her primary care doctor, who suggested she see a gastroenterologist. That doctor thought her symptoms might be reflux, but suggested she rule out the possibility of a heart problem before going further. After all, for men and women alike, the most common symptom of heart attack is chest pain or discomfort. (Women are more likely than men to experience other symptoms, including discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath; or feeling lightheaded, breaking out in a sweat or experiencing unusual fatigue.)

So just before Labor Day, Yolanda saw John Minutillo, MD, a Northwell Health cardiologist and nuclear imaging specialist, for an electrocardiogram (EKG), a test that monitors the heart’s electrical rhythms to check whether arteries are blocked. He also scheduled Yolanda for a stress test—another EKG, this time done while she was exercising, to show how well her heart performed when it had extra demands put on it. “I failed the stress test,” says Yolanda. “So I went back the next day for a stress echocardiogram.” This test allows the doctor to see the heart beating, with images taken right before and after exercise. As Dr. Minutillo watched, he could see that something wasn’t right: There was a blockage in one of the main arteries feeding the heart. “Dr. Minutillo stopped the test,” she says, “and told me to go to the hospital.”

No problem, Yolanda told Dr. Minutillo—she just had to go back to work first to wrap up a few tasks. This time, however, her workaholic tendencies wouldn’t fly. The receptionist took her outside, hailed a cab and told the driver to take her straight to the hospital. She was headed to Lenox Hill Heart & Lung, ranked one of the best hospitals in New York state for bypass surgery.

Smiling woman in her kitchen.
Yolanda took a no-nonsense approach to solving her heart problem.

At Lenox Hill Heart & Lung, Carl Dietrich Reimers, MD, an interventional cardiologist, performed a coronary angiogram, which uses X-rays and contrast material to create detailed images of the heart’s arteries. He found that one of her coronary arteries was 90% blocked by plaque buildup. Nirav Chandrakant Patel, MD, director of Robotic Cardiac Surgery for Northwell Health and vice chair of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery at Lenox Hill, explained to Yolanda that while some blocked arteries can be treated noninvasively by snaking a stent (a small metal tube) through a blood vessel to the problem spot, her blockage was too extensive. She needed coronary artery bypass surgery, he told her, but added that she was in the right spot for it: Lenox Hill Hospital is one of the hospitals most proficient in the procedure in Manhattan. 

Normally, a coronary artery bypass requires extensive open-heart surgery. But Yolanda was lucky. Lenox Hill is one of the first hospitals to perform a minimally invasive version of the procedure, using the state-of-the-art da Vinci® robotic surgery system. That allows surgeons to make a few small incisions instead of the one large incision required in open surgery. In addition, with robotic surgery, there’s no need to stop the heart and put patients on a cardiopulmonary bypass machine. Dr. Patel and his surgical team helped pioneer this new approach to coronary artery bypass and have performed more than 1,500 of these robotic procedures. 

“I was glad I was in a place where an expert robotic heart surgeon was working on Labor Day weekend. That was a blessing all by itself,” says Yolanda. 

Smiling woman cooks a healthy vegetable stir-fry.
After her surgery, Yolanda has a new taste for life.

A few days later, Yolanda went home, where she took a couple of weeks to fully recover. She is now back at work, but is taking a more balanced approach to life, and has made a few changes to boost heart health. “I make sure to ride my bike every day,” she says. “And healthy cooking is now a hobby.” Yolanda eats a lot more vegetables, especially dark leafy greens—in fact, she makes sure half her plate is full of vegetables at every meal, and has cut down on refined carbs. She enjoys experimenting with new flavors, trying different types of salt-free seasonings and pairing them with fresh lemon and lime. She also makes her own infused olive oils—rosemary and garlic are favorites.

Her new, healthier approach to diet has inspired the whole family, she says. “My 9-year-old only used to like broccoli, but now he’s eating string beans, peas and squash.”

She continues to see Dr. Minutillo to monitor her heart health and credits a successful healing process to the doctors and nurses at Lenox Hill Heart & Lung. “I think it’s really important to have a healthcare team who truly cares about you and communicates well,” she said. “It definitely helped with my recovery. If I need to ask a question about my heart health, I can pick up the phone and talk to Julie Delianides, my nurse practitioner. And Julie says, ‘Hi, Yolanda, how are you?’ It makes a huge difference.”