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JJ Travels 1,000 Miles for Specialized Heart Surgery

After being diagnosed with a complex heart disease, JJ set out on a journey to find the surgical team that was the best fit to treat his condition. Now he’s setting out again — this time, to enjoy life with a new perspective.

JJ has always been active, including competitive swimming and volleyball in college. At 52, he continued to take care of himself, doing high-intensity workouts and yoga. But in 2020, he noticed that something was wrong.

“I was dizzy,” he recalled. “I was tired and weak. It kind of crept up on me, but it just wasn’t the quality of life I wanted.” After collapsing during a workout, he saw a cardiologist near his home in the Dallas, Texas area.

The local cardiologist diagnosed him with left ventricular outflow tract (LVOT) obstruction, a condition caused when blood flow is restricted from leaving the left ventricle, the chamber of the heart that pumps oxygen-rich blood throughout the rest of the body. LVOT obstruction is the telltale sign of a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Life-threatening condition blocks blood flow

JJ’s obstruction was caused by a genetic condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which occurs when the heart’s walls become too thick. This means that the heart can’t pump blood as efficiently and needs to work harder to keep up. Some people don’t notice any symptoms, while others can develop shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue, and even chest pain as the condition worsens over time.

Whether or not they experience symptoms, those with HCM are at higher risk for sudden cardiac arrest.  

Complicating matters further, JJ also had a misshapen mitral valve, which was adding to the obstruction and making his heart work even harder to circulate blood through his body.

The local cardiologist recommended surgery, and JJ decided to explore all his options.

“It’s a very specialized surgery,” JJ explained. “So my wife, Penny, and I wanted to do some research first.”  

JJ’s search leads him to AHN

Specialists treat HCM several different ways, depending on each patient’s circumstances. Sometimes medications can help improve the heart’s efficiency, but patients like JJ, with more severe symptoms, need specialized surgery.

JJ wanted to find an experienced surgeon who specialized in septal myectomy, the type of HCM surgery he needed. So he and his wife began a nationwide search for experts and narrowed the list down to five, including AHN Cardiovascular Surgeon Pietro Bajona, MD, PhD.

“We interviewed all the surgeon candidates and their teams,” said JJ. “AHN fit what we were looking for perfectly.”  

JJ was impressed with the group of specialists that would care for him during the surgery and beyond. Dr. Bajona described, “With AHN, he wasn’t just getting me as a surgeon. He had an entire team solely dedicated to treating hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, including cardiologists, electrophysiologists, geneticists, and nutritionists.”

Septal myectomy surgery at AGH

JJ flew to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh for several days of preoperative testing, followed by the intricate open-heart surgery.

During the septal myectomy, Dr. Bajona removed portions of JJ’s thickened heart muscle so it could pump blood more easily. JJ spent seven days in the hospital, recovering in the intensive care unit (ICU) for about half of his stay. After being discharged, he stayed in Pittsburgh for three more weeks for physical therapy and to heal enough to safely fly back home to Texas.

“I felt so welcomed at AHN,” said JJ. “They did a wonderful job from beginning to end, coordinating lots of moving pieces for a very complicated surgery.” 

Setting out with a new focus

Now back at home, JJ has fully recovered. He’s able to be active once again. But his experience with HCM has led him to reevaluate his priorities. “I’ve worked very hard my entire life,” he said. “Now I realize that work’s not everything. There’s an entire world out there that I want to see.”

He and Penny are setting off in their brand-new RV, on a quest to visit every state in the continental U.S. and make their way through Canada, enjoying time together while they visit the landmarks they want to see at their own pace. 

And even though he’s transitioned his care back to his local cardiologist, Dr. Bajona will still have his heart:

“I know I’m going to be connected to Dr. Bajona for the rest of my life,” JJ reflected. “And I’m glad that I have the rest of my life, thanks to Dr. Bajona.” 

Comprehensive heart care from nationally recognized experts

AHN Cardiovascular Institute

From preventive care to help keep hearts healthy to complex life-threatening conditions like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the AHN Cardiovascular Institute is a national and regional leader in cardiac care. The institute is comprised of a highly skilled team of heart specialists with access to latest technology and techniques for treating all types of cardiovascular conditions. We offer comprehensive heart care services throughout our entire network, with the most advanced services centered at our hub at Allegheny General Hospital, the home of our dedicated Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Program.

Learn more about hypertrophic cardiomyopathy