Photo of John L. Weiss – three days after open heart surgery at WHS.

I needed a new heart valve.

Note: my story is long but I promise it’s worth reading the whole thing.

It was the summer of 2018 and the result of my echocardiogram was “You have aortic stenosis and it’s possible you’ll need surgery in the next five years”. Fast forward just one year to the summer of 2019, and the diagnosis was quite different: “Your aortic stenosis is severe, and your aortic valve needs to be replaced.”

That was a shocker!

Kathy, my wife, and I did a lot of research on the procedure, what to expect and how things are done. My younger brother had aortic valve replacement surgery in New Jersey seven years ago, and he really helped prepare us for the journey ahead, given his insight and experience. But, let’s face it… there was plenty of fear of the unknown. The thought of open-heart surgery, my heart being stopped for an hour or two, and then being put back together was downright scary.

It was my perception that open-heart surgery in western Pennsylvania could only be done at the giant hospitals in downtown Pittsburgh, so the first surprise was when Dr. Scolieri, the cardiologist at WHS Cardiovascular Care, told Kathy and me that surgery would be done at WHS Washington Hospital. She was so thorough in telling us what she found and what to expect, and Dr. Scolieri was incredibly reassuring as she described the capabilities of the surgical team, the staff, and the facilities.

After getting another echocardiogram and meeting with Dr. Scolieri, I thought surgery would be right around the corner. Wrong! The amount of testing and preparation work in advance of my surgery was far beyond what anybody could anticipate, and included a day for heart catheterization and yet another day for chest X-rays, scans, ultrasounds, urinalysis, blood work, and more. I lost count of how many nurses and technicians and specialists I met at Washington Health System during the pre-op tests in the weeks before surgery, but they all had one thing in common—they made me feel at ease. They were informative and businesslike, but just as importantly, they smiled, they joked, and they were down to earth.

The extent of consultation with the surgical staff in the days leading up to surgery was off the charts. The amount of time that Tina, Dr. West (WHS Cardiologist) and Dr. Haselkorn, (Anesthesiologist) spent with me a couple weeks in advance of my surgery surpassed my expectations. It was impossible to be anything but appreciative for their time, candor, and compassion. They explained the upcoming surgical process in extraordinary detail, including preparation beforehand and the recovery afterwards. They were patient and thorough in answering every question Kathy and I asked.

The day of surgery couldn’t come soon enough for me. In the weeks leading up to it, I could tell I was going downhill. I was feeling tired and spent, with occasional periods of rapid heartbeat. I was winded after very little exertion. It was time.

We arrived at the hospital at 5:00 am on September 10; the staff was organized, got me signed in, and then took me directly to the prep room. Several different nurses and aides prepped me for surgery, got the IVs started, and—without exception—they made me feel confident that everything would progress smoothly. Dr. West, Noah, and Dr. Haselkorn came in to talk one more time about what was on the agenda for the day, and they answered any last questions I had. When it was time to start wheeling me to the operating room, I gave Kathy a kiss and she headed to the waiting room …

… and in what seemed an instant, I was awakened in the CCU, surrounded by Kathy, family, two nurses, and Noah, who said “Wake up, John! We’re all done!”

The nurses in the CCU were special and I’ll never forget how special they made me feel. Every single one wore a smile each and every time they came in the room. Cassandra and Roxanne never left my side on the afternoon and evening when I awoke after surgery. Given the effects of the anesthesia, I’m sure I wasn’t expressing it to them at the time, but the attentiveness and the kind words were very much noticed, and set the tone for the remainder of my recovery in the hospital.

I was blessed to have nurses like Kati, Kayla, Leah, Bell, and Autumn … I apologize for forgetting the names of others, but I’ve not forgotten their faces or the care that they provided to me. Every nurse was pleasant, no matter what I needed. They were at my side in moments whenever I rang the bell and they were so kind, no matter what time of day or night I called. They laughed at my jokes and they engaged with me and my family. At the same time, the level of professionalism and medical care was top-notch. They explained each task they were doing: they made sure I understood which medications did what, they described which readings were of greatest importance, they helped me get into and out of bed and go for walks, etc. Being fresh out of major surgery, there are no personal secrets and there is no privacy, as they monitored me from head to toe; through it all, they treated me with an outstanding combination of respect and humor. I could only think to myself that this entire CCU team had to be the All-Stars, the best-of-the-best who were hand-picked from the entire hospital staff.

It wasn’t just the nurses who were good to me. The housekeeper brightened each day when she came to my room. She had me laughing the entire time she was cleaning, telling me her stories and putting up with mine. The woman from food service went out of her way to wait on me, and outdid herself by making sure Kathy was offered something whenever she was in the room with me. The technician who would awaken me for my 4:00am X-Ray each day had the perfect demeanor for the task at hand; no guy wants to wake up hurting in the middle of the night with a giant scar down his chest, but she was compassionate and most informative in explaining what she was doing, how the X-rays were used, and how important it was to keep my lungs inflated and clear.

As for Dr. West, Noah, and Tina, what can I say? They didn’t just replace my aortic valve … they made the experience magical. They fixed me, they kept me fully informed about the medical aspects of my surgery, and, above all else, they demonstrated how valuable it is to have people-skills and bed-side manner. Tina wasn’t in the operating room, but she spent an enormous amount of time with me before surgery and afterwards. She was a walking encyclopedia of medical knowledge. She even called me after I got home to make sure my meds were correct, checking to see if things were OK with me. Noah was at the top of his game in walking me through what happened during my surgery. He was equally gifted in being able to offer medical insight or making me laugh while yanking out my chest tube. Dr. West made me feel at ease; he filled me with confidence before the operation, and he certainly proved his skills based on the results. I can’t imagine that there’s a better surgeon anywhere. Between Dr. West, Tina, and Noah, I’m still awestruck at the time they spent with me afterwards. As they explained things and answered my many questions during my recovery, I could only think “I’m keeping these people away from their jobs! They must have sick patients who need help!”

The aftermath? I was fearful of the pain of having my chest split open, but I quit taking painkillers just 40 hours after surgery. One of my goals was to be able to inflate the breathing tube to 2,500 within a week, but I was able to do it the morning after surgery. I had surgery on a Tuesday and I was discharged on Friday; quite a turnaround, so I’m told! Within seven days, I was able to walk half a mile around my neighborhood, and I walked a mile just two weeks after surgery. I was fully prepared to be off work for six to eight weeks, but I felt great and got stronger every day, and I was back in the office in just three weeks and two days! And I’ve gotten better every day since. My energy level is back to what it was years ago. I feel alive again!

This was the first time I was ever hospitalized in my life. It was good fortune to have been surrounded by the most incredible team of doctors, nurses, aides, and others that could be imagined. And I’m also thankful for the great work done by those behind the scenes … the many people working in purchasing and scheduling and maintenance and so many other functions who aren’t ever seen by the patient, but contribute so much and play an invaluable role in the patient experience.

When I’m asked where I had surgery, I’m quick to reply “Washington! And I would recommend it to anybody who is having open-heart surgery!”

Thank you, one and all. I’ll remember you the rest of my life!

John L. Weiss, grateful WHS patient.