Doctors at Intermountain Healthcare recently became the first in Utah to perform a new life-saving heart procedure.
Thanks to newly developed medical technology, and a procedure called a thoracic branch endoprosthesis, surgeons were able to repair vessels in Antonio Gomez's heart without having to perform open-heart surgery — a lengthy operation that he probably would not have survived. Instead, surgeons repaired Gomez's aortic aneurysm by feeding a stent graft through his blood vessels, with only a few punctures necessary.
"Right now I'm feeling great," Gomez told the media through a Spanish language translator at Intermountain Medical Center on Wednesday. "I'm very hopeful that I now have the opportunity to be on this earth for a few more years than I originally anticipated and very grateful for my physicians, Dr. Evan Brownie and Dr. John Doty, who were able to help me throughout this procedure."
Gomez said he didn't notice many symptoms leading up to the surgery, until "one day when everything just kind of hit full force. I started to have some debilitating pain from the chest on down. I was in excruciating pain. I wasn't really sure what was going on."
He said his wife initially thought he was joking one day when he fell on his knees, but she quickly realized he couldn't get up and was having trouble breathing, so she called an ambulance. His wife, Nilsa Gomez, said it was "a very bad night," because she was just recovering from COVID-19 and the paramedics wouldn't let her close to her husband for fear that she might pass something to him.
"It was a very difficult moment for me," she said. "I was getting off the quarantine ... and then the paramedics came to my house and they didn't let me get close to him. He was calling me and calling me ... because he was thinking he was going to die or something like that. And that, for me, was a very, very difficult moment."
Nilsa Gomez said her husband was in the intensive care unit for 22 days, and she feared that he would need open-heart surgery because she knew it was risky for him. She said she was shocked when doctors told her Antonio was bleeding internally from an artery in his heart.
"I didn't know that (an) artery can be bleeding like that and somebody can be still alive," she said.
Antonio Gomez returned home for a few weeks, but Nilsa Gomez said he was unable to do anything by himself and seemed like a different person. Although they were still somewhat nervous when the doctors offered to perform the new procedure, Nilsa Gomez said the doctors gave her confidence it would work.
"It was a real miracle for us," she said. "It was an adventure for the whole family. ... He felt like he wasn't sure, but I was so sure that he was going to be OK. I feel like it was a nightmare and I woke up."
Nilsa Gomez said Antonio is about a month out from his surgery. He has already returned to work, and is doing much better than before.
"I feel so grateful that he's my husband again," she said with a laugh.
Brownie, a vascular surgeon, and Doty, a cardiac surgeon, said they have already performed a handful of similar surgeries on other patients, and are excited about the procedure's potential.
They noted that the surgery required before this new procedure became available was long and dangerous, because it involved opening a large incision in the patient's chest and another incision in the neck to supply blood to the brain during the procedure. In order to perform the old procedure, physicians would often have to stop a patient's heart, halting circulation.
The new procedure allows surgeons to maintain blood flow to the brain throughout the operation, and can reduce recovery time from a few weeks to just a couple of days.
"And not only that, it's safer," Doty said. "We're coming through someone's leg with small puncture sites ... and the graft ... covers just the area where it's torn and diseased. And we don't have to make any cuts. We don't have to take out part of the aorta. We don't have to potentially interrupt blood flow to the brain or the arms.
"It's just an amazing advance in the last year," he said.
The surgeons are confident patients will be better off with the options the technology provides.
"We've already done several," said Brownie, adding, "we're really trying to utilize this device and select patients to offer the full complement of aortic care, not by using old devices and modifying or burning holes in them but actually using the latest and greatest technologies and innovations and try to work with our supply chain to get them available to our patients immediately."