A heart attack at age 24 was the first indication that Robert Turner had a congenital heart defect. Diagnosing and correcting it took a highly specialized team.
As a computer engineering major, Robert Turner understands the importance of flawless design. Every day, he applies his math, physics and computer science skills to perfectly analyze, problem solve and pinpoint hardware and software system malfunctions. However, when Long Beach Medical Center physicians discovered a dangerous defect in his body’s system design and function – specifically, the structure of his heart – Robert struggled.
“It was hard for me to come to terms with the idea of open heart surgery. I’d lived with this abnormality my entire life and up until now I’d never had any issues,” says Robert.
OUT OF NOWHERE
The problem, of course, started in the womb.
“Congenital heart defects develop in the embryo,” says Greg Thomas, M.D., MPH, medical director, MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute, Long Beach Medical Center. “As we grow from one cell to a whole human being, things don’t always go according to plan, and errors in development can occur.”
For Robert, his left coronary artery branched off the aorta in the wrong place. As Robert was growing up, the odd positioning never caused any limitations. In fact, his growth and physical abilities were no different from those of his identical twin Michael, whose heart structure is completely normal.
Then, in May 2014, Robert was playing cards with his brother and a few friends when he started experiencing chest pain that radiated down his left arm and up his neck into his jaw. He tried to ignore it, finished his card game and went to lie down. As the pain increased, he did what any computer savvy person would do: he Googled his symptoms and learned that this could very well be a heart attack. Still in denial, he drove himself to the nearest ER, but by then, the pain had subsided.
“Although my heart rhythm and EKG were normal by the time I got there, physicians insisted on doing tests,” says Robert. “They drew blood and about half an hour later, the results came back, showing my cardiac enzymes were critically high. I couldn’t believe it – I had a heart attack. So I called the smartest person I know – my mom.”
HEART OF THE PROBLEM
Concerned and fearful, his mother Nancy, a long-time nurse and director of epidemiology and employee health services at Long Beach Medical Center, immediately consulted with Dr. Thomas. He recommended that Robert come to the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Medical Center for follow-up. Cardiac computed tomography, or cardiac CT, used a series of clear, detailed X-rays to create a 3-D image of Robert’s heart. Coupled with an echocardiogram, the cardiac specialists had the definitive diagnosis they were looking for to develop a treatment plan.
“Our cardiac specialists are experts at interpreting these test results and really understand the nuances,” says Dr. Thomas. “And it’s these nuances that save lives.”
About six weeks after his heart attack, Robert underwent open-heart surgery to move his left coronary artery into proper position. He was in the Cardiac Care Unit for 24 hours. By the second day, he was walking around the hospital. After three days, he went home.
CARE THAT MATTERS
The MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Medical Center leads the way in the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation and research of cardiovascular disease. Its unique proximity to Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach offers patients the only Pediatric & Adult Congenital Cardiac Surgery Program in Southern California. Adult and pediatric specialists partner to perform surgeries on patients of all ages, from the tiniest newborn, to a transitioning adolescent,
With only 130 board-certified congenital heart surgeons in the entire United States – most of whom work at children’s hospitals – rarely does a congenital heart surgeon have the needed specialty training, expertise and opportunity to follow a patient from infancy into adulthood. Sharing a campus, physicians at Long Beach Medical Center and Miller Children’s can provide that unique care.
Shaun Setty, M.D., who performed Robert’s surgery, is one who does. As medical director and the Helen E. Hoag Endowed Chair of the Pediatric and Adult Congenital Cardiac Surgery Program at the Pediatric Heart Center at Miller Children’s, his expertise lies in all aspects of pediatric and adult congenital heart surgery, including neonatal and transplant surgery
“For the best possible outcomes and survivorship into adulthood, congenital heart defects must be diagnosed as early as possible, including during pregnancy,” says Dr. Setty. “A delayed or missed diagnosis can be life-threatening, but the reality is that not everyone has access to a congenital heart defect specialist team.”
He adds, “Eight out of every 1,000 babies have a congenital heart defect. For the rest of their lives, they should be followed by a team that specializes in congenital heart defects. The care teams at Long Beach Medical Center and Miller Children’s collaborate and create a continuum of care from the very first time we see each patient, regardless of age. That’s just one of the many aspects that makes us unique.”
Today, Robert is healthy, and fully recovered from his surgery. He remains under the care of the same specialists that saved his life at the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute.
“I don’t feel any different since the surgery,” he says. “But I know I’m a changed man. People always say to appreciate your health. Well, I appreciate my cardiac care team at Long Beach Memorial. They’re the reason I can go back to my normal life.”
For more information, please visit our section on Heart and Vascular Care.