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Published on February 19, 2019

Walking Tall After Infection Leads to Open Heart Surgery

Most people hear “open heart surgery” and think bypass or pacemaker. But for one Lemont resident, the procedure was a lot less straightforward than clogged arteries or an irregular heartbeat.

John Kwak was in good health when he was diagnosed with kidney stones

Lemont resident John Kwak.

in October of 2017. Relatively common, kidney stones occurs when crystalline mineral material hardens in the kidneys. Although painful, most kidney stones eventually pass on their own without medical intervention. John later developed a urinary tract infection (possibly due to the kidney stones) and was put on antibiotics.

Despite waiting it out for weeks on the medication, John never got better. He was often tired and lacked his usual energy. “I was sleeping a lot, even dozing off while watching television, which was unusual for me. I had constant neck pain, and I developed a cough. Finally, when my feet and ankles started to swell, my brother insisted that I go to the hospital.”

John took his brother’s advice and went to the Palos Hospital Emergency Department. Once there, doctors quickly determined his cough was due to fluid in his lungs. However, further tests revealed the presence of bacteria in his blood. More testing—including an ultrasound of John’s heart—followed. Finally, doctors were able to pinpoint the cause of John’s distress: endocarditis.

Endocarditis is an infection of the endocardium, most often involving one of the heart valves. It can occur when bacteria from another part of the body spreads through the blood and makes its way to the heart. If not treated quickly it can lead to life-threatening complications.

“Once the doctor determined that it was a heart issue, everything seemed to happen quickly,” said John. “There were several disciplines all working together on a solution, because it was a complicated case. I was concerned, but everyone took care to answer all of my questions to put me at ease.”

John’s care team at Palos included infectious disease specialist Kiran Dhillon, MD, cardiologist Roland Winterfield, MD, and cardiovascular surgeon George Hodakowski, MD. Together, they collaborated to develop a specialized treatment for John, based on the unique aspects of his particular case. Although endocarditis can be treated with antibiotics, the doctors agreed that open heart surgery was his best option. Dr. Hodakowski explained, “The bacterial infection had damaged Mr. Kwak’s aortic valve, resulting in severe leakage of the valve, otherwise known as aortic insufficiency. The only prudent treatment was an aortic valve replacement.”

Signs and Symptoms of Endocarditis

Endocarditis can develop slowly or suddenly, depending on the germs causing the infection and whether there are any existing heart problems. Symptoms can vary but according to the American Heart Association, common signs include:

• Flu-like symptoms, such as fever and chills

• Fatigue

• Aching joints and muscles

• Night sweats

• Swelling in feet, legs or abdomen

• Fast heart rate

• Persistent cough

John was able to leave the hospital a week after his surgery. An order from his physician for home health allowed him to continue to recover in the comfort of his home. Since the risk of infection was still high, John went home with a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter) in his arm so that he could receive intravenous antibiotics. Every day during the first week, a nurse came to clean and dress the PICC line, as well as offer needed instruction. In addition, a scale and blood pressure machine offered continuous monitoring of John’s condition, feeding the information back to nurses at the hospital. Home Health aides came regularly to help with showering and light housekeeping.

“At first I thought it was ridiculous that I had to go home with all this equipment,” said John. “But the people from Palos Home Health really helped me get used to living with it. They were so accommodating and understanding about all my questions.”

Once John finished with antibiotics and had healed adequately, he was ready to begin rehab at Palos with Cardiac Rehabilitation. For three months, three days a week, John did specific cardiac exercises to improve strength and endurance, along with stretching exercises to help increase his flexibility and decrease the risk of exercise-associated injuries. “Everyone at rehab was so encouraging. I liked going because people were smiling and happy at every visit. I never felt like I was at a hospital when I was there.”

Today, John feels back to his normal self, doing all the activities he was too tired to do before, including grilling and gardening at his Lemont home as well photographing area nature, especially flowers, birds and butterflies.

“I was so impressed with everyone at Palos,” continued John. “From the surgeons and doctors to the nurses and therapists in rehab, no one dropped the ball. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Palos for cardiac care—or any care—to anyone.”

Visit the Heart Care page to find out more about cardiac services and treatments offered through Palos Health.