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Jim’s Heart Scare: Triumph of Teamwork Saves His Life

Heart Health
Author name: Lee Health

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Endocarditis portrait husband and wife

Jim Lee and his wife, Holly.

Jim Lee, 77, had caught the flu. Or so he thought. He had some of the symptoms, certainly—the chills, the shakes, and he couldn’t get warm. It was mid-December, prime flu and cold season.

But the flu-like symptoms dragged on, and one morning a few days shortly past Christmas Day, Jim failed to recognize Holly, his wife of 41 years. Terrified, she called emergency services to their home in Punta Gorda, and Jim was taken to a local hospital.

“I was hallucinating and had double vision,” Jim says. “Honestly, I don’t remember much during this time and what happened in the next few weeks. Holly went through all of this with me and remembers it. I can recall bits and pieces, though.”

Jim's doctors diagnosed him with sepsis, a potentially deadly condition that occurs when the body’s immune system goes into overdrive when battling an overwhelming infection. In Jim’s case, his infection was likely a bacterial one. Usually, the immune system responds efficiently to destroy microbes or bacteria that invade the body.

But, in sepsis, the exaggerated immune response can cause widespread inflammation and tissue damage. If not treated quickly, sepsis can damage the body’s organs and tissues and can even cause death. Every year, sepsis affects around 1.7 million adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Learn more about sepsis here.

Doctors immediately prescribed Jim antibiotics and other medications to fight the infection and help relieve his frightening symptoms. They also ran more tests to try and identify the site of the infection.

They found it, all right, in his heart. Jim’s life was in peril.

What is infective endocarditis?

Jim had developed sepsis from infective endocarditis, an inflammation of the lining inside the heart's chambers and valves.  Infective endocarditis is a relatively rare but deadly cause of sepsis, with an overall mortality ranging around 25 percent. If left untreated, it’s always fatal. 

“In most cases of endocarditis, the infection happens when germs get into the bloodstream and travel to the heart,” says Dr. Paul DiGiorgi, a cardiothoracic surgeon with Shipley Cardiothoracic Center and cardiothoracic section chief with Lee Health Heart Institute. “Once inside the heart, the germs can attach to the lining or get trapped in the heart valves, where they grow and cause an infection.”

The aggressive bacterial infection had spread to three of his four heart valves in Jim. Worse, his condition had deteriorated. His blood pressure had dropped to a dangerously low level, indicating he’d progressed into septic shock, the last—and deadliest—stage of sepsis. 

“Also, his kidneys and liver were failing,” Holly recalls of the terrifying ordeal. “Because his blood levels were dangerously low, Jim received an emergency transfusion of platelets to stabilize him.”

According to the CDC, Endocarditis is typically treated with long courses of intravenous antibiotics. But if the infection causes damage to the heart valves, valve repair or replacement surgery may be needed. 

Jim’s cardiologist and doctors consulting on the case agreed that Jim needed emergency open-heart surgery to replace all three valves, a highly complex surgery that, in patients like him, offered low odds of survival.

His cardiologist recommended that Jim be transferred to HealthPark Medical Center for advanced surgical heart care and treatment.

Holly says, “Jim's doctor felt very strongly that the only surgeon who could do the surgery properly was Dr. DiGiorgi and his surgical team.” 

When Jim was admitted to HealthPark Medical Center, he was hallucinating and drifting in and out of consciousness. But he does recall this part of his recovery miracle: "I was in shock, but knew I was in excellent hands."

Medical staff confirmed Jim’s diagnosis. He was stabilized in the intensive care unit while his care team was assembled, representing the top clinicians at HealthPark Medical Center. 

All hands on deck

Experts across cardiology, cardiothoracic surgery, infectious disease, pulmonology, electrophysiology, and hospital medicine collaborated on his complex case. 

"The surgery was very high-risk due to how widespread the infection was," Holly says. "The doctors warned us the chance of complications or him not making it through was relatively high.

“We were very impressed by the team approach and teamwork,” Holly says. “The infectious disease doctor was particularly important because of the bacterial infection. They kept doing tests to make sure Jim was on the right medication. They couldn’t perform the surgery until the bacteria was gone.”

Jim says, “Even though the odds were against my survival, less than 13 percent. Dr. DiGiorgi and his surgical team made me feel far less fearful because he seemed comfortable with his team. That comforted me.”

A life-saving surgery saves Jim’s life

On January 24, Jim underwent his operation. During surgery, Dr. DiGiorgi removed the three infected valves and replaced them with artificial valves. He also repaired a blocked heart artery with a bypass graft and did what’s called a maze procedure to help control Jim’s atrial fibrillation.

“After Jim had his operation, Dr. DiGiorgi sat down with me and walked me through every aspect of the process,” Holly says. “What they had done, why they had done it, and how he felt that Jim had done very well during and after the surgery. 

It was very comforting, so I felt hopeful.”

Jim survived the surgery, but now he faced a long, difficult recovery. Dr. DiGiorgi emphasized the importance of cardiac rehabilitation to rebuild his strength. But that would come later after Jim left the hospital and recuperated at home for a few weeks. After he was well enough, he’d start the Lee Health Cardiac Rehabilitation program.

During his hospital stay, Jim’s medical and nursing care teams kept constant vigilance on him, starting in the morning with the cardiothoracic surgical team. It’s the high-quality, compassionate, and patient safety care that continually earns HealthPark Medical Center top marks as a premier hospital for heart care.

“Cardiology would come by first thing in the morning and then throughout the day. Then someone with the infectious disease team would come by and update me on the tests they’d done, what other tests they planned to do, the medications I was taking, and the results of my blood tests,” Jim says. “I was always in the loop. I was never more than half a day away from an update from any of those teams.”

“There was always somebody there, and the nurses and the nurse assistants were terrific,” Holly says. Each morning when I arrived, I'd stop by the nurse’s desk first, and they'd fill me in on how his evening went.”

Jim chimes in, “the nurses were so attentive and truly committed to my physical and emotional recovery. And the physical therapists gradually built me back up with customized, monitored exercise."

Holly says having access to Jim’s health record online allowed her to participate as a partner in her husband’s care. The MyChart patient portal is a key component of EPIC, Lee Health’s hospital information system. The free, secure online tool gives patients easy access to their HHS health records anytime.

READ: Learn How MyChart Puts You First

She champions MyChart’s “proxy” feature, which allows Lee Health patients, family members or guardians to access their health information. 

“MyChart was fabulous because I could review the results of Jim’s tests from the day before, like his blood tests. Because I could also see the different tests coming up, I could ask relevant questions because I knew what was happening. I could even see all the doctor's written notes, including Dr. DiGorgi’s from the surgery.”

Jim goes home, but he’s hardly alone

Jim was discharged home from HealthPark Medical Center on February 1.

“They don't just send you home,” Holly marvels. “They arranged for our home healthcare team to help him get back on his feet. A nurse came a couple of times a week to take his blood, check his vitals, and ensure everything was progressing. We had a physical therapist come who helped him gradually build back up with customized, monitored exercise. Even after we left the hospital, we felt cared for.” 

Next step: Jim’s cardiac rehab program puts a bounce in his step

In March, Jim began cardiac rehabilitation at Lee Health Cape Coral Hospital. Lee Health Cardiac Rehabilitation program offers patients the most advanced cardiac rehabilitation facility in Southwest Florida. Our Cardiac Rehab Phase 2 programs are certified by the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation (AACVPR).

Jim’s heart function was carefully monitored while he exercised under full medical supervision. His care team included doctors, nurses, exercise physiologists, and a dietitian. The all-encompassing program focused on weight training, cardio, and heart health and nutrition education.

“They evaluate your lifestyle and physical fitness level to develop a program tailored specifically for you,” Jim says. “Everyone from the nurses to the therapists are highly trained. I feel like I've gotten stronger. When I get home from a rehab session, I have more bounce in my step and more stamina.” 

"The rehab staff worked hand-in-hand with my cardiologists, surgeons, and other providers to manage every aspect of my recovery," Jim explained. "Their seamless communication and individualized care plan made all the difference."

An ally of Jim’s recovery: a plant-based diet?

Jim also credits his whole food and plant-based diet for helping him bounce back so strongly, something he hadn’t expected when he changed his approach to nutrition in 2007.

"My doctors were pleased with how quickly my surgical wounds healed, and my energy levels rebounded," Jim said. "They said my excellent health going into the surgery played a huge role. Being on a plant-based diet certainly helped me get better more quickly."

Indeed, research shows that a healthy diet and lifestyle habits can reduce risk factors for heart disease and improve outcomes after cardiovascular events and procedures.

Jim followed his doctors' recommendations for a cardiac rehabilitation program involving monitored exercise, counseling on lifestyle changes, and nutritional guidance - sticking to the plant-based foods he knew were optimal for his recovery.

WATCH: Plant-Based Diet: What You Need to Know

Jim continues to regain his active lifestyle thanks to the multidisciplinary efforts of his care team.

"We're forever grateful to the exceptional skills and coordination among all the providers who cared for Jim," said Holly. "From the ER physicians to the rehab specialists and everyone in between, their expertise saved Jim's life and got him back to vibrancy."

Jim agreed, "I wouldn't be here without the Heart Institute's phenomenal, integrated team of experts. Their comprehensive approach and genuine commitment to my outcome ultimately allowed me to make this remarkable recovery."

Find a Lee Health cardiologist expert here.

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