For more than two decades, Connie Hofacker, 44, of Harrisonburg, spent her nights coughing and her days gasping for air.
Connie had been diagnosed with asthma 23 years ago. Slowing down and catching her breath was the norm.
But her symptoms sometimes were different. One day, suffering from what she thought was stomach pain, Connie went to Sentara RMH Medical Center emergency department. An examination revealed the pain was coming from her lungs, and she prepped for another battle against asthma.
“They thought I had fluid left over in my left lung from some pneumonia,” Connie says. “They cleared it out, and I went back to see Dr. Tarek Eid, a pulmonologist, for a follow-up a few months later. He did a breathing test, which I passed, so he sent me for another bronchoscopy to see how my lungs looked. After we got all the results, Dr. Eid said he didn’t think I had asthma and I needed to go see a surgeon at right away.”
The bronchoscopy, a test that allows doctors to look inside a patient’s lungs, showed a “pus pocket” in Connie’s lower left lung. The pocket was causing the constant infections and had damaged most of the lung tissue in the lower third of Connie’s lung.
“She had focal bronchiectasis, and she had recurrent symptoms and mucus production,” Dr. Eid says. “She had been taking antibiotics off and on for years. We had some abnormal imaging, so we took more scans and found more inflammation and saw abnormal airways. You don’t expect to see this in a younger person. The symptoms were similar to asthma, but instead they were caused by a very rare condition.”
An immediate follow-up with Sentara RMH cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Jerome McDonald was scheduled. Connie and her husband, Bob, walked from the hospital’s main entrance to Dr. McDonald’s office in the Hahn Medical Office building.
Meeting RMH’s new cardiothoracic surgeon
Dr. McDonald, an expert in procedures never done before in the region, including minimally invasive cardiothoracic surgery, had recently joined the staff.
“Minimally invasive cardiothoracic surgery is important because it typically results in fewer complications, less post-operative pain and faster recovery times,” says Dave Grembi, director, Sentara RMH Medical Center Heart and Vascular Center.
Dr. McDonald saw that Connie’s lower left lung had been ravaged by infection and was no longer being used by her body.
“She needed to have the lower lobe of her lung removed,” he says. “Surgery would improve her quality of life dramatically. We went in with VATS (video-assisted thoracic surgery) to remove the one lobe. It’s done with a small, one-inch incision and requires a short recovery time. She was ready to go home the next day, but we kept her an extra day just to be safe.”
Today, the difference the surgery made is evident.
“Everyone I work with is just amazed at my color,” she says. “I feel better; I feel like a new person. I don’t get short-winded or cough when I walk to a football game or play with my dogs. I’m not wheezing; I breathe like everyone else now.”