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March 19, 2020
Chester County Hospital: From Detective to Heart Surgery Patient
How Don’s Life Was Saved by Heart Valve Surgery
High-pressure situations are second-nature to Don D’Ginto. He spent his life on the police force as a detective, volunteering as a firefighter since 1976, playing football—anything that took stamina and grit.
When Don broke his back in 2016 while chasing an armed robbery suspect, he was forced to retire after 31 years on the job. “One of the K-9s hit on a scent and was running toward something. Out of force of habit, I ran after him. I tripped on some concrete steps and hit my knees and chest, and I fractured 6 vertebrae,” Don explains.
He went through rehabilitation and had surgery but was never able to return to the police force. Fortunately, his health insurance continued after his retirement, and he was still able to take advantage of the annual physicals provided to police officers. One of these annual physicals eventually led him down the path to his next obstacle: open-heart surgery.
How a Physical Revealed a Heart Problem
It was at his physical in 2017 with Dr. Stephen F. Belfiglio, DO, that Don learned his heart may not be as strong as he always assumed it was, despite a life full of activity. Dr. Belfiglio noticed a heart murmur, which can sound like a “whooshing” or extra click through a physician’s stethoscope. Dr. Belfiglio immediately recommended Don see a cardiologist, which Don now recognizes as being one of the reasons he’s alive today. “If it wasn’t for Dr. Belfiglio, I wouldn’t even be here. He’s the one who found it,” Don says.
For Don, “it” was a couple of conditions, which both involved his aortic valve — the part of the heart that opens up to send blood to the rest of the body. Don’s aortic valve had stenosis, which is a narrowing of the valve opening that restricts blood flow. He also had a bicuspid aortic valve, meaning his aortic valve had only two leaflets, instead of the normal three.
The result was that Don’s body wasn’t getting the necessary blood from his heart, and it needed help.
The Fast Track from an Annual Physical to the Cardiologist
When Don was told he needed to see a cardiologist, he immediately knew who to contact — Dr. Gregg L. Neithardt, MD. Dr. Neithardt was one of the cardiologists on his father’s care team after his heart attack. Don knew his heart is one of his most critical organs, and he also knew he could trust Dr. Neithardt with it.
Dr. Neithardt was extensive in testing Don’s heart. He performed procedures such as an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to form pictures of the heart, and a coronary computed tomography (CT) angiography, which uses an injection of contrast material to look at blood flow during a CT scan. The day after his appointment, Don received a call from Dr. Neithardt at 7:30 AM with the news that he had a bicuspid valve. “He told me, ‘Just so you know, your valve is going to have to be replaced at some point, probably 10 to 12 years down the road,’” Don says.
Don’s physicians monitored his heart at appointments every 6 months. Eventually, their estimation for when Don would need a new valve decreased from 10 to 12 years to 8 years, and so on. “It seemed like the time frame was becoming less and less,” Don recalls. Finally, just 2 years later, on May 20, 2019, Dr. Neithardt said it was time to see a heart surgeon, which didn’t come as a major surprise to Don.
“I had noticed that when I was shoveling the driveway and the sidewalk after it snowed, I couldn’t even shovel what I’d been able to shovel before,” Don says. “I was winded and out of breath. Eventually, the last month before my surgery, I couldn’t even walk to the mailbox or take the trash out.”
Before contacting a heart surgeon, Dr. Neithardt wanted to do one more test—called transesophageal echocardiography (TEE)—to be sure they had a complete picture of his heart to provide to the surgeon. A TEE is similar to the echocardiogram Don had previously, but it goes down the throat and into the esophagus, producing extremely clear images of the heart. The TEE revealed that Don’s heart valves had a large amount of calcification, and he had severe aortic stenosis.
A heart surgeon was to be Don’s next stop on his heart journey—one that undoubtedly saved his life.
Heart Surgery: A Few Nerves and Lots of Questions
Don knew that he needed to get his heart valve replaced, but he wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. “It was nerve-wracking to tell you the truth, and I didn’t know what to expect,” Don says. One thing did calm him down, though: his surgeon at Chester County Hospital, Dr. Steven J. Weiss, MD. “He’s the chief and in charge of the whole unit,” Don explains. “I was fortunate enough to get the boss to do my procedure.”
Still, Don had questions—a lot of them. First, he wanted to know what the replacement valve was made of. Dr. Weiss told Don they were going to use a valve made from cow tissue, which requires fewer medications and diet changes than a mechanical valve. This man-made valve intrigued Don. Still a detective at the core, he wanted to know more. “Is it like a part store in a motor store and you just go out and pick the right size?” Don recalls asking. Dr. Weiss responded yes, it’s exactly like that.
Don’s last question was if they’d be videotaping his surgery—to which Dr. Weiss responded that they weren’t going to, but they could take some before and after photos for Don. Dr. Weiss lived up to that promise, and he sent those photos straight to Don’s phone just days after the surgery.
“My wife said I was asking too many questions about where they got the valve from—and when I asked them to take a photograph she thought I was really crazy,” Don says. “I wanna know what’s involved. I’m a cop and a detective—my job is to ask questions.” Amidst all the questions, they eventually managed to schedule Don’s surgery. On July 24, 2019, Dr. Weiss and his team gave Don a heart valve—and a new life.
The Road to Recovery—with a Minor Speed Bump
Don remembers waking from his surgery to sights of the intensive care unit (ICU), though he’s fairly certain he didn’t fully open his eyes for at least a few days. While he felt generally okay, his nursing staff still did everything they could to make him comfortable—down to finding a fan to cool him off and providing him an alternative to plain water.
“I was tired of drinking water, so one of the nurses brought me some flavor packets—from her own personal inventory that she had taken out of her pocketbook,” Don says. He recalls being very appreciative of everything the nursing staff did in those days following the surgery. He was in the ICU for 7 days in total, during which he was visited by Dr. Weiss at least 3 times a day and Dr. Neithardt at least 2 times a day. “They took a personal interest in my recovery,” Don says, “for which I was incredibly thankful.”
When Don was able to return home, he knew his recovery wasn’t quite over. His nurse navigator, Abby Ferriola, RN, kept a close eye on him with regular check-ins. On one Friday, just a month after the surgery, Don received a call through RightCare Touch—Chester County Hospital’s automated phone system that helps monitor patients after heart surgery. On the call, Don marked that he wasn’t feeling too great. The system alerted Abby immediately, who consulted with Jennifer Dempsey, PA-C, a physician assistant on Don’s care team, and together they decided to bring Don into the hospital.
When Don arrived, Dr. Weiss was ready to see him. “He told me, ‘You’re not leaving until we get this figured out,’” Don says. Four hours later, they did figure it out, but it took a few tests to get there. Dr. Weiss and his team started with another echocardiogram. Because of the urgency, Dr. Weiss asked the radiologist to be in the room to get an immediate read on the scans—but nothing was abnormal.
Eventually, they did an arterial blood gas, where blood is taken from an artery to examine the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This revealed that Don’s medications were impacting his diuretics and making his stomach upset, which was a simple change and a relief to Don.
“The physicians and nurses at Chester County Hospital went above and beyond compared to my previous experiences in the medical field. I didn’t even get this much attention when I broke my back,” Don says.
Life with a New Valve and a New Perspective
Don has always known that open-heart surgery was no small procedure, but he was also aware of how critical it was for his life. After Dr. Weiss did the surgery, he told Don that it was a good thing they did the surgery when they did because “another 2 months and you would have been checking out.”
His old valve was less than the size of a pencil, which was keeping his body from getting the blood it desperately needed. Today, with a new valve, he’s able to incorporate more activity into his life, a little at a time. He’s appreciative of his new valve, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have his reservations at the time. “All the doctors say don’t go online,” Don says. “They say it scares you. But I did go online, and it did scare me. That was the first time I realized the seriousness of this procedure.”
But Don also knew he was in good hands with his physicians. “Dr. Weiss told me this is like changing a tire. They do these numerous times a week. And I trust these physicians—I really do. These guys know what they’re doing,” Don says.
Don’s recovery isn’t over yet. His physicians and nurses call for regular health check-ups. And recently, they called to get his permission to use his case during a class with students who are learning about heart surgery—to which he said, “Of course.” Don is certainly a fan of questions and, as he says, “a big believer in knowledge.”
CALL TO ACTION/COMMENT/SHARE: Do you have questions about your heart health or aortic valve replacement? Visit PennMedicine.org/ChesterCountyValve to request an appointment.
When your life changes in a heartbeat, we bring the power of Penn Medicine to you. For more than 125 years, we’ve been looking toward the future. Unafraid to embrace the unknown, always willing to bring our best to help you face whatever challenges life gives you. With the strength of the region’s #1 health system, Chester County Hospital is evolving to bring the latest technological advancements — including incredible breakthroughs in heart and vascular treatments — right here to you in Chester County. It’s one more reason why your life is worth Penn Medicine.