DR. MARK J. RUSSO, MD, MS

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A cutting edge procedure that allowed a patient to avoid a high-risk open heart surgery.

As featured in ESPNs “Outside the Lines”

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Thirty Years After An Aortic Dissection, A Solution is Found

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“When I woke up from my surgery, my first thought was extreme gratitude. ‘I am still here.’ I touched my chest and only felt soreness, not pain; I couldn’t believe how it wasn’t that painful. I was just really happy that the surgery had a positive outcome, and so grateful to Dr. Russo,” said Lorraine.
Lorraine is no stranger to heart issues. More than 30 years ago, Lorraine suffered a dissection of the aorta and was transferred to two hospitals in New Jersey before landing at a hospital in New York City. Medical experts told her it was too dangerous to perform surgery. In fact, one physician dismissed her by saying he was skeptical any doctor would actually take her case.
Thankfully, Lorraine found a cardiologist to help manage her condition successfully with medication, blood pressure monitoring and imaging to monitor any changes in the dissection. However, in the middle of 2020, Lorraine developed a constant cough and as it progressed, she was told it was most likely asthma, but she knew something was wrong when she struggled to breathe.

She ended up at a local emergency department in Manahawkin, where she was told she had congestive heart failure and required surgery.  “I was so nervous because I was previously told I couldn’t have surgery, and I was petrified of what open heart surgery would be like,” said Lorraine.

The hospital team highly recommended Mark Russo, MD, MS, chief of the Division of Cardiac Surgery; director of Structural Heart Disease, RWJBarnabas Health, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) and associate professor of surgery at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Her cardiologist agreed Dr. Russo was the right surgeon for Lorraine, and upon further research, she was impressed as well.

During a telemedicine appointment with Dr. Russo, they had an open conversation about her case and Lorraine explained her history. Dr. Russo talked her through the complex surgeries needed to help her. In October 2020 at RWJUH in New Brunswick, Dr. Russo performed a successful open replacement of her ascending aortic aneurysm with an aortic valve replacement (AVR), in combination with coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. Lorraine was discharged a few days later.

“When I woke up from my surgery, my first thought was extreme gratitude. ‘I am still here.’ I touched my chest and only felt soreness, not pain; I couldn’t believe how it wasn’t that painful. I was just really happy that the surgery had a positive outcome, and so grateful to Dr. Russo,” said Lorraine.

After some time recuperating, Lorraine returned for the final part of her journey to recovery. In December 2020, Dr. Russo and vascular surgeon William Beckerman, MD, assistant professor of surgery and associate program director in the Division of Vascular Surgery and Endovascular Therapy at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, successfully performed a minimally invasive procedure, thoracic endovascular aortic repair (TEVAR), placing a stent graft in the descending aorta.

Today, although she is still in recovery, she feels better every day, both physically and mentally.

“Over the years whenever I would see cardiovascular surgeons, they would say, ‘Wow! What you have is so rare, we don’t know what to do.’ I am so thankful to Dr. Russo and to God, who I believe guided me to him. I am very, very lucky with my outcome, and for any patients who have had a problem for decades, whatever it is, if you haven’t seen a doctor to follow-up on what new procedures are available, I encourage you to. It saved my life,” says Lorraine.
 
 

 

A better heart-valve fix
The minimally invasive procedure gets patients feeling chipper faster.

 

In  everything I do in life, I move very quickly and can’t slow my pace down; I don’t hesitate. I’ve been like that all my life. So when I started experiencing shortness of breath just walking around my neighborhood, it was a big problem.

I had a heart bypass done a few years ago and recovered well afterwards. I went back every six months to my cardiologist to get a check-up after that. Eventually, at one of my follow-up appointments, my doctor told me he didn’t like how my aortic valve sounded, and he was going to start monitoring it.
As the years passed, I noticed that I was having trouble with my breathing—it wasn’t really bad, but it wasn’t really good, either. I’d be walking like normal and have to stop after a little while and catch my breath. I actually stopped doing certain activities, because it required more effort to do them. When we went to church on Sunday, I had to climb a flight of stairs and slowly take one step at a time. I remember thinking, “boy, this is not good.” I was concerned and unhappy about my shortness of breath, and I told my cardiologist at my next appointment with him. He said it was a key symptom of aortic stenosis—a narrowing of the aortic valve—and it was time to take a closer look.

He let me know I would eventually need a valve replacement to feel better. He said fortunately, I was a good candidate for a minimally invasive procedure called transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR). My cardiologist said that TAVR was “a piece of cake,” and explained the surgeon would replace my valve by going through a catheter in my groin area. I was all in favor of it.

I went to [the hospital] on a Friday and a cardiologist there assessed my valve. He looked at me and said, “If you were my father, I would do the TAVR tomorrow.”

The problem was, my wife and I were planning to head to our winter home in Florida that Sunday. But I knew this was more important—Florida could wait—and I’d enjoy being down South much more with a new valve. I told the cardiologist, “let’s do it.”

That Wednesday morning, I went back to the hospital for my TAVR procedure. The TAVR took 45 minutes—the prep I had to do was more of a pain in the neck than the actual procedure! Afterwards, I was in the ICU for 12 hours to make sure everything was functioning properly. I was back home Thursday afternoon, and only 36 hours later, I was basically back to my normal activities. It was amazing. There was no rehab. There was no physical therapy. I didn’t have to do anything but resume my normal life. And I was never in any pain. You can’t get much better than that!

I went back to my cardiologist about a month later for a follow-up appointment, and now I just have regular appointments to check in with him—and he can’t find anything wrong with me. He even takes me around the office to show me off to other cardiologists.

I’m thrilled with how I feel, and so is my wife. Everybody is thrilled. People tell me I’ve got more color in my face; I’ve got more oxygen in my system and I feel great. It’s funny how, once we feel better, we quickly forget how badly we felt in the past—I can’t believe I was living with that constant struggle to catch my breath. Now, back in Florida, I go to the beach, have a bite to eat, see friends, listen to the ocean—I’m not restricted in any way anymore.

In front of our condo, there’s a handicap ramp, and before my TAVR, I would have to stop in the middle and take a breather before continuing to the lobby. Now, after TAVR, I’m walking up the ramp without stopping. I’m getting a knee replacement in two weeks, and I can’t wait—I’m going to start running around the block!

To anyone thinking about getting TAVR, I say: don’t hesitate. You won’t regret it.

George Nahass is almost 84 years old. He and his wife of 60 years split their time between New Jersey and Florida. Together, they have six children, 19 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Minimally Invasive Procedure Helps Get Florham Park Woman Back on Her Feet

Toms River, NJ – Donald Estelle felt just fine heading into a routine appointment with his primary physician. However, the physician was troubled by what he heard with a stethoscope and referred Donald to a cardiologist for further testing.

After undergoing an electrocardiogram (EKG), Donald received the shocking news that his aortic valve was not opening adequately. And while this was certainly a serious condition, the cardiologist felt that Donald didn’t need to jump into surgery right away but would need to address it over time.

The time period came quicker than expected. Just a year later at his annual cardiology check-up, the 76-year-old Toms River resident learned that his condition had gone from serious to severe. Time was of the essence.

Donald was referred to cardiac surgeon Mark J. Russo, MD.  During the consultation, Dr. Russo explained that Donald’s aortic valve was not functioning properly and needed to be replaced. “I was shocked and scared and didn’t know what to say,” says Donald.
After a comprehensive evaluation and discussion with Donald, Dr. Russo, a heart surgeon who performs both traditional open heart surgery and less-invasive catheter-based procedures, recommended Donald undergo Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR).  TAVR is a minimally invasive treatment for severe aortic stenosis, regardless of a patient’s age or comorbidities. It involves placing an artificial tissue valve inside the diseased native valve via catheter, usually through the groin. Recovery is minimal and patients often return home the next day.

Dr. Russo performed the successful TAVR procedure. 

Donald’s wife Carol of 20 years is forever grateful to Dr. Russo. “He took my husband’s life into his hands and made sure everything was all right.” “I asked Dr. Russo to promise me that he would bring back my husband walking and talking like I brought him in here. Dr. Russo did a beautiful job – he’s my hero.”

Following the procedure, Donald does not have any limitations. “I feel great and can’t ask for anything more,” he says.  “It was a miracle that my husband was able to be cared for by Dr. Russo – he used his head and his heart,” notes Carol. “I can’t praise Dr. Russo and the entire staff enough for the tremendous care they provided to my husband and me. I would recommend Dr. Russo and the staff to anyone.”