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Stephanie Forster, EP, CCRP and David Shawler

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Listen to the conversation with Stephanie Forster, EP, CCRP, Virginia Hospital Center, about preventing heart disease and promoting heart health.

Heart Services

Patient Success Stories

Virginia Hospital Center's Heart Services Team has helped thousands of patients and their families. The success stories below represents a small sampling of the success we build each day. To read, please click on the links below to expand or collapse.

“I’m so glad I did not have to have open heart surgery! I recovered within a short period of time and I continue to progress all the time. I have a lot more energy, and I’m not as tired. After my procedure in April, I was back at work part-time by mid-May and full-time in June.”
— Frank Mack, Springfield.

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Frank had aortic stenosis, a condition where calcium build-up narrows the aortic valve and restricts blood flow to the body, requiring the heart to work much harder. Unable to walk even one block without feeling short of breath, Frank became fatigued at the slightest physical activity. The only treatment for aortic stenosis is surgical replacement of the aortic valve. Although Frank was relatively young at 63, his other medical conditions made open heart surgery too risky.

“I had a heart valve problem and was told I only had about nine months to live. Then, my doctor called to say there was a new procedure being done at Virginia Hospital Center that could help me. When I woke up after surgery, I could breathe easily and my head wasn’t spinning. Within a few hours, I was walking the halls of the Hospital.”
— Linnia Victorine, Gainesville.

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Linnia is an independent person, still living by herself at age 88. Last winter, though, she was feeling lightheaded, dizzy and increasingly short of breath. She had severe calcific aortic stenosis, meaning that the opening of her aortic valve had narrowed significantly, restricting blood flow to her body and requiring her heart to work much harder. There are no medications to treat aortic stenosis and lifestyle changes can’t fix it. The only treatment is to replace the valve surgically. As patients age and develop other medical conditions, the risk of surgery increases. After her surgery, Linnia is back at home and doing well.

“I was on a call in Woodbridge. I was about to hook up the chains and then I passed out.” What happened next involved fate connecting the right people in the right places to save Taylor’s life. 
— Taylor Robertson

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Taylor Robertson, a tow truck operator from Fredericksburg doesn’t remember much. Kennetha Marbury of Woodbridge had been to a doctor’s appointment and was coming home by a different route than usual. She saw a small crowd gathered around a tow truck and stopped, thinking one of her neighbors was having trouble. Instead, she found herself administering CPR to an unconscious Taylor Robertson. “More than 30 years ago, I took an LPN course and learned how to perform CPR. But I’ve never done it on a real person,” says Kennetha. “I thank God that I remembered my training.”

Kennetha continued CPR for nearly 10 minutes until the EMT team arrived. “I kept talking to Taylor while I was doing CPR,” she recalls. “I was saying, ‘you will not die. You will stay with me.’ His wedding ring caught my eye and I said, ‘Your wife will not get a call that you’re not coming home today.’”

Taylor was in cardiac arrest and had to be shocked four times by the EMT team to restore his heart’s rhythm. Upon arrival at the nearest hospital, he was treated by Kambeez Berenji, MD, cardiologist, who says, “We immediately took him into the cardiac catheterization lab and found that he had very severe blockages in all arteries going to his heart.”

At that point Dr. Berenji made another connection—he contacted John R. Garrett, MD, FACS, Chief of Cardiac, Vascular & Thoracic Surgery at Virginia Hospital Center. “Dr. Garrett has operated on my patients before and I knew of his reputation as an excellent surgeon,” says Dr. Berenji. “That’s what this patient desperately needed.”

After Taylor was stabilized enough to be transported, he was taken by ambulance to Virginia Hospital Center where a cardiovascular surgery team, led by Dr. Garrett, performed quadruple heart bypass surgery.

During the five-hour surgery, “the nurse told me he wasn’t responding at one point. Afterwards, Dr. Garrett said ‘this can be a complicated surgery, but Taylor was strong,’” recalls Ercel, Taylor’s wife. “I must have died two or three times that day and everyone came together to bring me back,” says Taylor.

“God put me in his path that day,” says Kennetha. “I didn’t even know Taylor’s name and how to get in touch with him until my neighbor remembered the name on the tow truck. I called the company and found out he was at Virginia Hospital Center, so I went to visit him.” Taylor and Ercel were thrilled to be able to thank Kennetha in person.

“This is where it counts,” says Dr. Berenji. “When I have really sick patients and am able to get them treated and brought back to at least near normal. That’s why I send my patients to Virginia Hospital Center.”

Taylor continues to work on his recovery. “For the past 15 years or so, I was out of shape,” he says. “Whenever I exerted myself, I felt out of breath, but I never did anything about it. Now I’m going to cardiac rehab and exercising on my own. I am blessed to be alive.”

“Dr. Rhee is a genius because he was able to do my surgery through a small incision. He is my hero.”
— Heather Reitze.

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Heather Reitze is back doing what she loves best — walking her dog, Roo, around her Del Ray Alexandria neighborhood. "I'm exercising and feel strong now. I can do everything I was able to do before," she says.

Last spring, though, things were very different. Heather, 64, was feeling fine except for some nagging back pain, and her primary care physician, Terri Remy, MD, FACP of the Virginia Hospital Center Physician Group, referred her for physical therapy. But, when the pain persisted, Heather underwent a battery of tests, which showed an infection in the vertebral bone surrounding the spinal cord and a lesion on the mitral valve in her heart. Heather was diagnosed with endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart that can have life-threatening complications. She was placed on intravenous antibiotics for a month to treat the infection and then was referred to cardiologist Rachel Berger, MD.

"When I met Heather in June, she was having shortness of breath and overwhelming fatigue, and could only walk short distances," Dr. Berger says.

Dr. Berger performed an ultrasound to view the interior of the heart, which showed that the mitral valve had been damaged by the infection.

"Heart valves are like doorways between different chambers of the heart, which open and close in synchronized fashion to keep blood moving in the right direction," Dr. Berger explains. "When the mitral valve is damaged, blood can leak and go backward into the lungs instead of forward, which can cause shortness of breath and congestive heart failure."

Heather needed mitral valve surgery and Dr. Berger referred her to cardiovascular surgeon John W. Rhee, MD, FACS, an expert in heart valve reconstruction and replacement.

"When possible, we always try to repair the mitral valve instead of replacing it. This is better for the heart," says Dr. Rhee. "Because Heather's heart disease was isolated to the mitral valve, and she was in good health otherwise, she was a good candidate for minimally invasive mitral valve surgery."

Compared to traditional surgery, which requires a six- to eight-inch incision in the breastbone, minimally invasive surgery is done through a small incision between the ribs.

Shortly before Heather's scheduled surgery date, her back pain worsened, her blood pressure dropped and she developed a fever. Blood tests showed that her infection had returned.

Infectious disease specialist Ian Seemungal, MD was called in. Dr. Seemungal is a member of the Virginia Hospital Center Physician Group. Blood cultures revealed a rare kind of streptococcal bacteria that is typically very resistant to antibiotics. He admitted Heather and ordered a new, stronger regimen of intravenous antibiotics. Dr. Rhee collaborated closely with Dr. Seemungal to determine when it would be safe to proceed with her surgery.

"For the surgeons to feel comfortable operating on the heart valve, they want to make sure the blood is free of bacteria," Dr. Seemungal says.

While Heather was at the Hospital waiting for her infection to clear up, she recalls how Dr. Rhee came in at least once a day just to see how she was doing. That put her and her family at ease.

"Every time he came by, I asked him: 'Will you do my surgery less invasively?' That was my biggest concern. I did not want to have a big incision in my chest," says Heather. Like all patients at Virginia Hospital Center, Heather had a private room. "I had a beautiful view. It was like being at the Hilton! And the nurses were so responsive — they came within seconds of my calling them," she says.

After her blood cultures were clear, it was time to fix her heart. Dr. Rhee performed the surgery in July with his partner, John R. Garrett, MD, FACS, Chief of Cardiac, Vascular and Thoracic Surgery. A small incision was made in the thigh to place her on cardiopulmonary bypass during surgery. The surgeons accessed the mitral valve through a 2.5" incision in the right side of the chest. After the damaged portion of the mitral valve leaflet (flap) was removed, the remaining normal portions of the leaflet were sewn together. A special ring was placed around the frame of the valve to reinforce the repair. After the repair. an echocardiogram confirmed that the valve leaflets moved well and there was no valve leakage.

"Performing her surgery minimally invasively made her hospitalization shorter and her recovery much easier," says Dr. Rhee. "Heather made an excellent recovery."

Heather was up and walking the day after her surgery. She went home three days later. Within a few months, she was completely back to normal.

“Fate put me here. EKOS is not a procedure offered by my primary hospital. Northern Virginia residents are fortunate to have access to a hospital that offers such advanced treatment.”
— Tierney Schmidt, EKOS Patient.

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Tierney Schmidt, 35, from New Berlin, Wisconsin, didn’t make it out of Reagan National Airport on her own. Coming off the plane with acute shortness of breath and numbness in her legs, she was transported to Virginia Hospital Center by ambulance and rushed into the Emergency Department. Her condition was a life-threatening, massive pulmonary embolism—two large blood clots on both sides of her pulmonary artery in her lungs.

A pulmonary embolism is the result of a blood clot that usually originates in the veins of the leg. If it breaks off and travels to the lungs, it can become lodged in the blood supply, obstructing blood flow through the heart. The clot prevents blood from getting to the lungs to be oxygenated, putting a tremendous strain on the right side of the heart. A massive pulmonary embolism similar to Tierney’s case has more than a 50% mortality rate within three months—higher than the rate for a heart attack.

“Pulmonary embolism is a common and often unrecognized emergency condition,” says John Golden, MD, FACC, interventional cardiologist and Chief of Cardiology, Kaiser Permanente. “A lot of the time it goes undiagnosed. It is not something that would be identified on most standard emergency room testing. But, someone who has been sitting on a flight for a long period of time is clearly at risk.”

Fortunately for Tierney, Virginia Hospital Center has an advanced, minimally invasive treatment for pulmonary embolism—the EkoSonic™ Endovascular System (EKOS). “Using EKOS, we guide catheters toward the right side of the heart and into the pulmonary artery. The ultrasound device loosens the bonds of the clot and allows the thrombolytic (clot-busting) medications to penetrate and dissolve the obstruction more effectively,” says interventional cardiologist Jeremy Bock, MD, FACC of Virginia Hospital Center Physician Group – Cardiology.

“Because of how the thrombolytic medication is delivered to the clot, we are able to use a much smaller dose—about one-fourth of what we would have to use if this medication were given systemically,” explains R. Preston Perrin, MD, FACC, FSCAI of Virginia Hospital Center Physician Group — Cardiology. “Thrombolytics increase the risk of serious complications, such as brain hemorrhage or internal bleeding. EKOS allows us to give this medication in a lower dose that is more effective, with less risk to the patient.”

Tierney recalls when she first met Dr. Bock after being admitted to the Hospital. “Dr. Bock was calming, compassionate, and thorough in explaining my diagnosis and treatment options. It is evident he truly cares about his patients and their well-being.” She says, “Dr. Bock recommended EKOS due to the large size of the clots in both my lungs and the potential for long-term complications.”

Virginia Hospital Center has been using EKOS since early 2016. “This is an excellent treatment option for patients with a large pulmonary embolism. Our patients are recovering faster, spending significantly less time in the Hospital, and feeling better once they go home,” says Dr. Bock.

That was the case for Tierney. The morning after her EKOS procedure, she felt significantly better. Three days later, she was discharged from Virginia Hospital Center and flew home to Wisconsin a day after that.

“Fate put me here,” says Tierney, a full-time software implementation manager who travels extensively, and works part-time as a nurse in a neuro ICU unit. “EKOS is not a procedure offered by my primary hospital. Northern Virginia residents are fortunate to have access to a hospital that offers such advanced treatment.”

David Shawler had his first heart attack at age 41 and quintuple bypass surgery at age 55. Now 70, he has been a regular at the Cardiac & Pulmonary Rehabilitation program for 15 years.

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Heart patients like David Shawler really enjoy the Cardiac & Pulmonary Rehabilitation program at Virginia Hospital Center, which recently moved into new, larger space. For patients recovering from heart and/or respiratory illness, the program offers medically supervised exercise while wearing a monitor to check heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar, if the patient is diabetic.

Regular talks on heart education, guidelines for nutrition and managing diabetes are also part of the program.

“You start slowly to build up strength,” says David. “As you progress, you get to the point where you don’t need to wear monitors, but you are always supervised by nurses and exercise physiologists. It’s very comforting.”

Stephanie Forster, EP, CCRP, Cardiopulmonary Rehab Coordinator, says “This is such a rewarding job. We see patients gain strength, lose weight and improve their quality of life. Our goal is to give patients the confidence to exercise on their own.”



Saving Charlie Brannan

Charlie Brannon, 52, of Alexandria, and his wife, Beth, credit a team effort at Virginia Hospital Center for saving not only his legs, but possibly his life. It’s a compelling story that covers almost a full year. Read more


Save a Life: Learn CPR

Kennetha Marbury and Taylor Robertson
Kennetha Marbury with Taylor Robertson

The American Heart Association CPR courses are designed to prepare a wide variety of people who may need to perform CPR or help someone who is choking. Anyone may take these courses. Virginia Hospital Center currently offers two types of CPR Classes. Read more

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