Saving Lives & Touching Hearts

Cindy Johnson and her husband Rudy understand first-hand the importance of a healthy heart. When Cindy found herself hospitalized last Fall, facing a number of life-threatening conditions including a failing heart, the team at Flagler Hospital pulled together to help give this vibrant, 51- year-old mother, wife and business owner a second chance at life – with the help of an innovative heart support system called TandemHeart.

"Before all this happened, I felt perfectly healthy," said Cindy. "I was busy, active; the only medication I was taking was for high blood pressure."

But her daughter Heather recalls, back in July, Cindy had complained of a pain in her side, which a friend suggested could be her gallbladder. As many women do, Cindy dismissed the discomfort and went on with her busy life until she came down with the flu in September.

"I knew I had the flu, but I really felt terrible. At some point, I looked at Rudy and I told him that something just didn't feel right and he better go ahead and take me to the Flagler ER," she continued.

In the ER, Cindy's blood pressure was so low it was nearly immeasurable. After some fast diagnostic testing, it was determined that her gallbladder was severely infected and needed to be removed immediately. Dr. Christine Routhier performed emergency surgery.

"When that sweet doctor came out and told me the surgery was a success, I breathed a big sigh of relief," said Rudy. "But then she looked at me with real serious eyes and said 'this isn't over'. The gallbladder infection had spread throughout Cindy's body and her organs were shutting down. That's when a whole team of doctors, nurses and all kinds of people sprang into action once again to save Cindy's life," he continued. "Her pulmonologist, Dr. Prakash was very honest with me. He folded his hands together, looked down over his glasses at me and said, 'Rudy, there is a small window of opportunity here and it is closing fast. While it indeed may be ever-so-small, we need to put all our energy into staying focused on keeping that little window open.' I took what he said to heart and I just kept telling anyone who would listen to me that the precious little lady on the table there is my best friend and we need to do whatever it takes to pull her through. At one point, I threw myself down on the chapel floor there at Flagler Hospital and cried like a baby," shared Rudy, with fresh tears glistening in his eyes.

From the beginning of their ER visit, cardiologist, Dr. Ferris (Bo) George had been called in to address Cindy's failing heart, which was critical to her survival. After initiating several treatments and ascertaining that traditional methods were not giving Cindy the support she needed, Dr. George determined that her best chance was with the TandemHeart system.

"I knew that TandemHeart could provide Cindy the tremendous level of support she needed, shouldering up to 90% of the work of her heart," said Dr. George. "I had been through extensive training on the system, but no one here had ever performed the procedure on a patient. It was clearly her best chance of survival, and after talking with Rudy about it, our entire team pulled together to make it happen as quickly as possible. I am very proud of the team here at Flagler Hospital. I truly believe our collaborative approach and our ability to move through the necessary processes swiftly helped save Cindy's life."

Developed in 1993 by a cardiothoracic surgeon in Pittsburgh, PA, TandemHeart is the only system available that enables access to the left atrium of the heart. Only physicians willing to learn to perform this procedure, and hospitals committed to offering a full set of ventricular assist options for their sickest patients, are able to offer TandemHeart, which everyone involved in this case agrees was a lifesaver for Cindy.

"I didn't really know what this TandemHeart thing was, but Dr. George explained it to me. I had to do some soul searching and some thinking

about what Cindy would want me to do and I decided to sign all the papers and pray that this machine would keep my best friend with me," said Rudy. "And sure enough, with the help of a whole bunch of what I call 'The Elite' - Dr. George, Dr. Muerkhe, Dr. Pubbi, the cath lab and Miss Crystal Greer from TandemHeart, they got that blood of Miss Cindy moving again."

With Cindy's blood pressure returning to normal, the team worked to stabilize her further, including working with the FDA to use an experimental drug to fight the infection in her lungs.

"Here I was again, signing more papers and making more decisions that I hoped were the right ones," commented Rudy. "It was tough, but I am so thankful for the way an entire hospital jumped through hoops to get my Cindy the treatments she needed to save her life. This whole experience has renewed my faith in the world."

Cindy's story didn't end there. Once she was stabilized, it was determined that she may need an organ transplant and should be sent to a transplant facility. She was flown to Tampa General where she spent over a month – no organ transplant needed - and then underwent rehab at two facilities before finally going home in November – over two months later.

Cindy doesn't remember much of the experience at all, and has only very recently started reading the little spiral bound journals Rudy kept throughout the entire ordeal.

"He handed those little notebooks over to me and I thought 'is this going to make me sad? Because if it's going to make me sad I don't want to read it just yet'," she smiles. "Well, as soon as I turned to page one, sure enough, those tears started spilling. So, I am still going through them a little bit at a time. Mostly, I am focusing on my recovery and my health."

Cindy has just started cardiac rehab at the Flagler Wellness Center, which is a state-of-the-art gym that features on-site clinical staff and real-time EKG monitoring for patients. She and Rudy are also attending the hospital's free heart failure education classes, where Rudy no doubt takes dubious notes.

"I sure wish I could get her to eat some yogurt," he laughs. "People who know me, they know I can be a ball of fire - and for years, Miss Cindy held the reins on me. Well now it's my turn. She tries to do much too soon, or eat the wrong thing, or skip a meal, and I give those reins a tug and tell her what's what."

Both Cindy and Rudy recognize this was a life transforming experience for them and hope that sharing their story will help others become more aware of their health and the importance of helping others.

"I just want to encourage everyone out there to be aware of what's going on with your body. If you feel like something isn't right, go get it checked out. It's best to catch things sooner than later," said Cindy. "If me talking about everything I went through spares anyone else, then this has all been worth it."

"Like I said before," added Rudy. "This whole thing has helped me see that there really are still compassionate people in the world. Miss Crystal Greer from TandemHeart never met us before and she slept in the recliner right by my wife's bed. She did not leave her side for at least 72 hours. And let me tell you about Flagler Hospital. We have top-notch doctors and a fantastic team who really care about us right here in our town. They all work together and from my heart I believe my Cindy never would have survived if she had gone anywhere but Flagler.

"If there is anything I want people to take away from this, it is that we are not too busy in the world to care for one another," he continued. "Dad used to stop and talk to strangers all day and I never understood it, but now I do. Just talking to someone and hearing their story and telling them yours, well that can change your life. I hope we did a little bit of that today."

Click Here for Information from the American Heart Association.