Frightening collision a lifesaver
It was a gorgeous evening in June 2007 and Rhonda Scholtz was on her bicycle distributing graduation information to other parents of her daughter’s Grade 8 class, when she was hit by a truck in her hometown of Goderich. Miraculously there were no severe injuries.
“I was taken by ambulance to the hospital and in the Emergency Department the doctor was extremely concerned about my high blood pressure,” says Rhonda. “I remember trying to make light of it, saying I just got hit by a truck.”
The physician however did not make light of it and, before sending her home that day, made sure she had an appointment for a check-up the following day and further testing.
Rhonda had just turned 43 and never smoked a day in her life. She generally maintained a healthy diet, was going to the gym every day, and had a very active family life.
“The first round of tests indicated that I had a blocked artery. I couldn’t believe it and neither could my internist in Goderich – he thought perhaps it was a false positive,” she says. "I was a walking contradiction for heart disease. I had a healthy lifestyle. I was young, felt fine, and looked healthy. I fooled a lot of people, including doctors, medical staff and even myself at first."
She was sent to Kitchener for an angiogram and perhaps to put in a stent if there was blockage in an artery. However, the angiogram showed an almost 100 per cent blockage in her left anterior descending (LAD) artery, the main artery of the heart, in a location too dangerous to place a stent. A heart bypass was needed.
“All I could think of was my grandfather and uncle with the large scars on their chests, and all the pain and long recoveries they went through,” says Rhonda.
The cardiologist who did the angiogram referred Rhonda to an LHSC physician who was doing a new type of heart surgery – a robotic or computer assisted bypass.
These were the early days of robotic surgery and Dr. Bob Kiaii, Chief of Cardiac Surgery, was one of only three surgeons in Canada doing these procedures.
Determining whether a patient is better suited to a robotic bypass surgery -- which is minimally invasive, compared to a traditional bypass surgery, which requires the opening of the breast bone -- depends on a number of factors.
“The anatomy of the patient is a key factor along with the size and location of the blood vessel which we are working on. We also need to have the ability to insert the instruments to get to the vessel,” says Dr. Kiaii.
Rhonda was able to have the robotic surgery and over a five-hour period, Dr. Kiaii created a new blood supply to Rhonda’s heart through just three tiny incisions.
“The morning after the surgery I was brought from intensive care to the cardiac care unit, where I immediately got up out of bed, walked to the nurses’ station and asked for a hair dryer, as I wanted a shower,” says Rhonda. “They told me to go straight back to bed. I never did get that hair dryer.”
Recovery was quick for Rhonda. Her surgery was on a Wednesday, she was discharged on Saturday and that night, went out for a family dinner and watched the town's night time Christmas parade. Sunday she went for a long walk, Monday she was back at the gym on the treadmill, and by the following Saturday, only a week and a half after surgery, she was taking the high impact aerobics class and already back to work.
“Rhonda was not in any way typical for a young woman to have this, but she does have a family history,” says Dr. Kiaii.
“We do not know the exact cause of blocked arteries, but we do know the risk factors that predispose people to heart disease - raised cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, family history, smoking and being male.”
Typically, the recovery period for robotic surgery is two to three days in hospital and then two weeks at home for a full recovery. With traditional bypass surgery the chest bone needs to heal so you have four to five days in hospital and then two to three months at home to recover.
“Dr. Kiaii and his team really looked after me, you couldn’t ask for a better team. The nurses, everyone, were so kind,” says Rhonda.
She does have some advice for others who may be having bypass surgery - beyond the physical recovery be prepared for some depression, it’s normal.
“There were days when I was really down, crying for no reason. That passed with a bit of time,” she says. “It’s ok to feel like that, I think it’s a natural body reflex. Give yourself permission to feel that way.”
Rhonda considers herself very lucky.
“As silly as this sounds, the doctors have said that it was a good thing I was hit by that truck. It actually saved my life. I was told if that accident hadn't had happened, I would've probably died of a massive coronary, as people who are as young as I was with the same type and location of blockage that I had, usually never recover from it.”