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A Heartening Experience: Bypass Surgery Treats Heart Disease for Active Patient 

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When Roger Newill walked into the nurses’ station at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital a week after his heart surgery, the nurses noted two things about him. One, he looked healthier than they had ever seen him. And two, he held gift baskets of food.

“Of course I looked better — they had only seen me dressed in a hospital gown, which makes everyone look sicker than they are,” he jokes.

But the main purpose for his visit was to recognize the excellent care he received during his hospital stay. “The nurses made me as comfortable as possible,” he says.

Lucky Diagnosis
Even though both his father and grandfather died of heart disease, Newill’s diagnosis took him by surprise.

“I figured it was a matter of time,” explains the 60-year-old. “I just didn’t expect it at such a young age.”

An architect by trade, Newill doesn’t visit the doctor often — keeping active has kept him healthy, he says. But earlier this year, the Bay Colony resident saw his family physician to rule out prostate cancer and to start checking his cholesterol. At a follow-up appointment, he just happened to mention something else.

“I had some chest pain while mowing the lawn, but it stopped after a minute if I rested,” he recalls. “I asked if it could be allergies.”

His family physician referred him promptly for tests — including a stress electrocardiogram (EKG) and nuclear stress test. The tests indicated possible problems, and a heart catheterization (where dye is injected through a catheter in the groin to view coronary arteries) confirmed his physician’s suspicions.

It wasn’t allergies Newill had, but heart disease.

Mild Warning Signs Ignored
In most cases, symptoms of heart disease (including shortness of breath, a feeling of fullness or discomfort, weakness or dizziness, nausea, or palpitations) are so modest that patients ignore them until too late.

“My cardiologist said I was lucky we discovered it before I had a heart attack,” Newill recalls.

Newill’s arteries were clogged by plaque (a build-up of cholesterol) in three spots, which inhibits blood flow. Because the blockages were at artery intersections, surgeons couldn’t use stents (metal mesh artery reinforcements). They recommended bypass surgery, which reroutes blood around clogged arteries to improve flow of blood and oxygen to the heart.

Five days later, Newill was in surgery.

Low Surgical Risk, High Experience
As a non-smoker who wasn’t overweight or diabetic, physicians told Newill he was a low-risk candidate. And they would know — cardiac surgeons have been performing heart surgery at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital since 1990, and mortality rates are lower (therefore, better) than the national averages established by the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

Newill’s surgery lasted approximately four hours, with no complications. After only five days in the hospital — during which he doesn’t recall much, except that his wife stayed by his side, his son and daughter visited in shifts, and the nurses took good care of him — Newill went home to finish the healing process.

Road to Recovery: Normal?
A typical recovery period for this kind of surgery can take a few months, physicians say. Muscles are weak and bruised, and the body needs time to bounce back from the trauma.

Newill doesn’t sugarcoat what he has experienced during his healing.

“I felt as brittle as broken china glued back together,” he explains, “although that was entirely from opening my rib cage to get to my heart. There was no ‘real’ pain whatsoever.” For six weeks after the surgery, he was exhausted. To enhance the healing process, he attends rehab at Sentara Virginia Beach General Cardiac Rehabilitation three mornings a week.

“The physical therapy helps get me moving, and it gives me a chance to ask about any little pains that are bothering me,” he says.

For that reason, Newill wishes he had kept a diary starting the minute he woke up from surgery. “Every new twitch or pull or pinch brought a question: Is this normal?” he recalls.

But his specialists assess his symptoms — from a pull in his chest to a pain in his shoulder blade down to the itchy scar on his shin — and assure him he’s ok.

“That’s a nice, comforting part of therapy. The staff is knowledgeable, thoughtful and careful,” he says. “And as long as the answer is ‘that’s normal,’ you stop worrying about it.”

Active Future Ahead
For now, Newill jokes that his wife has taken over lawn-mowing duties. But by next spring, he plans to be back to yard work, as well as other physical activities, including rebuilding a cabin on Back Bay.

He already has made key dietary changes to help reduce the risk of heart disease returning.

“Changing your diet is a matter of willpower,” he says. But, “it’s worth it. It will help me continue doing the things I love for a long time.”

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