Cardiac Patient's Stamina Rises to New Heights after Robotic Surgery

Judy Asbell, flight attendant, enjoys a fuller, even more active lifestyle than she expected following her top-flight cardiovascular care at Allegheny Health Network (AHN).

Asbell of Peters Township, Washington County, had no symptoms of heart problems when, as a teenager, she was diagnosed with an innocent heart murmur during a routine physical exam.  She wasn’t required to limit her physical activity or restrict her athletic lifestyle in any way.

Despite that diagnosis, the busy flight attendant led a full and active life. Then at age 50, she developed mitral valve prolapse and her primary care physician referred her to a cardiologist for monitoring.

Still without symptoms, Asbell was surprised when an exam — a routine cardiac ultrasound in 2015 —  revealed mitral valve regurgitation, a leakage of blood backward through the mitral valve each time the left ventricle of the heart contracts.

Mitral valve regurgitation is often mild and progresses slowly. The patient may experience heart murmur, shortness of breath, fatigue, heart palpitations, or swollen ankles or feet. They may have complications, including congestion in the lungs, or heart failure. Often, as in Asbell's case, the condition displays no obvious symptoms.

After six months of cardiac monitoring, Asbell was advised to get corrective surgery to avoid more serious heart problems. She was quickly referred for specialized care to Stephen Bailey, MD, director of Cardiovascular Services at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) and surgical director of the Thoracic Transplant Program at AHN.

The AHN Cardiovascular Institute is one of the nation's most respected medical centers for minimally invasive and robotic heart surgeries. In addition to mitral valve disease, the institute’s physicians use robotic approaches to treat tricuspid valve disease, congenital heart defects, coronary artery disease, heart failure, and heart valve disease.

Dr. Bailey suggested Asbell contact AGH Cardiothoracic Surgeon Walter McGregor, MD, who recommended the daVinci Surgical System mitral valve robotic surgery versus more risky open-chest surgery.

“Both Dr. Bailey and Dr. McGregor took the time to sit with me and explain my condition and the surgery. They even called me personally a few days prior to my initial appointments,” Asbell said. “They both put my mind at ease. It was an easy decision after they explained how the procedure was less invasive and the recovery was rather quick.”

They were both "spot on" in their predictions, she said. She appreciated learning in advance what she could expect before, during, and after surgery.

During the state-of-the-art robotic procedure, the surgical team makes a few small incisions on the side of the chest, near the patient’s arm, and a high-definition camera is threaded toward the heart using a long, thin tube.

The operating surgeon can view the inside of the body and make repairs while the surgical team changes the instruments attached to the arm. The robotic arms are as flexible as human hands and can rotate in ways that a surgeon’s hands cannot.

Asbell's surgery was done without complications on Dec. 9, 2015. She spent just under four post-surgical days at AGH — 40 percent less time than an average hospital stay for an open-chest procedure.

As Dr. McGregor predicted, it took Asbell only five weeks to heal.  A quicker recovery is one of many benefits of minimally invasive, robotic surgery versus open-chest surgery. Asbell also experienced:

  • Very low risk of complications
  • Lower risk of infection
  • Smaller scars
  • Less trauma and reduced post-surgery pain
  • Less blood loss resulting in less need for a blood transfusion during surgery

Eager to return to her regular routine of exercise, Asbell worked out post-surgery with her doctor's encouragement. She was delighted to return to water aerobics and walking her dog so soon.

After only eight weeks, she returned to her job and normal daily routine.

Although Asbell had no obvious symptoms of heart disease before the procedure, she observes that she can now breathe more deeply and has more energy. With this bonus, she has even increased her flight time at American Airlines.

Asbell has nothing but praise for AHN.

“The care was phenomenal,” she said. "From beginning to end, from office visits to admission, it was top-notch care."

"I feel so blessed. Early diagnosis, regular cardiologist follow-up and Dr. McGregor using the da Vinci Surgical System gave me a significantly faster recovery and saved my life," she said.   


Get more information about robotic heart surgery at Allegheny Health Network by clicking here. Call (412) DOCTORS (367.8677) if you need to make an appointment with a cardiac specialist.