A Seaside man on Friday became the 1,000th patient to receive open-heart surgery at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. The milestone, marked at a news conference on Wednesday, came as Community Hospital's Tyler Heart Institute celebrates its sixth anniversary.
The Tyler Heart Institute opened in 2007, and for the past four years has been awarded five stars by Healthgrades — the highest score possible — for excellence in cardiac valve surgery. Healthgrades is an independent health care ratings company.
The institute's 1,000th open-heart surgery patient, Ezequiel Rodriguez-Chavez, a 38-year-old auto mechanic, came into Community Hospital on Feb. 3, barely able to walk because of chest pain and shortness of breath.
At first, doctors suspected he had pneumonia or a bacterial infection of the heart, but when they performed an EKG, the diagnosis was clear.
Rodriguez-Chavez's heart was only pumping at 15 percent strength.
He had a congenital heart defect that slowed the blood flow out of his heart from a river to a trickle. Decades of strain on his overworked heart had finally taken its toll and an immediate open heart surgery was needed to save him.
Veteran heart surgeons Dr. Gregory Spowart and Dr. Vincent Gaudiani performed the surgery. When the surgeons opened Rodriguez-Chavez, they found his heart valve heavily calcified, "like a hard rock," Spowart said. "There was only a small opening for the blood to leak through.
The surgeons removed damaged tissue and replaced it with a valve from a pig. Now, although Rodriguez-Chavez's heart may always bear scars from years of strain, his blood flow is restored.
Rodriguez-Chavez had long been aware of his heart condition, but couldn't find treatment in Mexico, where he grew up.
At age 23, he was reminded of the condition after a car accident landed him in the emergency room at Stanford Medical Center.
"He was scared because he was traumatized by the car accident," said his wife, Xochil Rodriguez. "So he never wanted to go back to the hospital."
After rods were placed in his legs to fix broken bones suffered in the accident, Rodriguez-Chavez recovered and went on with his life. But two months ago, his condition deteriorated.
"We got scared because he couldn't work like he was working before," said Rodriguez, sitting with the couple's 2-year-old son, Ezequiel, on her lap. "He's a very hardworking man. He won't stop, even if he's sick."
When the doctors discovered the problem, they recommended the operation immediately, Rodriguez said.
"They operated on him and he's new again. He's got color in his eyes," she said, blinking back tears.
The thin Rodriguez-Chavez sat bundled in blankets next to his wife and son. Although only two days passed since his operation, he said the pain is gone.
"Every day is better," he said. "It's a miracle what they do here. I'll never forget this hospital, never."
Dr. Richard Gray, medical director of the Tyler Heart Institute, responded to Rodriguez's praise.
"That message invigorates us to go ahead for the next thousand or 10,000 patients beyond this," he said.
Gray and Spowart emphasized that early detection of heart problems is the key to successful treatment and encouraged patients to seek help before symptoms become dire.
"There's a shift in the view of medicine nationally — including Obamacare — toward wellness and wellness awareness," Spowart said. He referred to the Peninsula Wellness Center in Marina, an educational and treatment center partly funded by Community Hospital.
"I think changing that view toward being healthy will not only prevent disease, but help pick it up sooner," he said.