Cardiothoracic surgeon and Saint Joseph Hospital provide life-saving surgery for patient with rheumatic valvular heart disease
Lexington, KY --- On April 26, 2010, Michael E. Sekela, M.D., donated his surgical services to replace an aortic and mitral valve in a 36-year-old patient from Jamaica. Saint Joseph Hospital provided surgery space, hospital services and care for Donna Stephenson, a single mother of two from the village of Mount Salus outside of Kingston, Jamaica. On-X Life Technologies, based in Austin, Texas, provided $10,000 worth of heart valves for the procedure.
The surgery took about five hours. “There were no real surprises,” said Dr. Sekela, a cardiothoracic surgeon who has had hospital privileges at Saint Joseph Hospital since 1997. Diagnostic studies had been posted online so he could read them on his home computer. He was prepared for the surgery by the time the patient arrived in Lexington. Following the operation, Ms. Stephenson remained in the Cardiothoracic Vascular Unit (CTVU) at Saint Joseph Hospital for four days.
The patient had rheumatic fever as a child. Her heart condition worsened last summer, forcing her to seek medical help. A doctor detected a heart murmur and referred her to Dr. William A. Foster, a consultant cardiologist in Kingston, Jamaica. After administering an echocardiogram test, Dr. Foster told Ms. Stephenson she needed heart surgery, at a cost of $3,360 U.S. dollars. She earns $33 per week as a domestic helper.
Dr. Foster promised to search for a solution and wound up connecting successfully with Dr. Sekela in Lexington, who agreed to donate his surgical time and postoperative care. By January 2010 the coordination effort was under way, but there were challenges with the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica. It took an additional three months to have a temporary visa granted to the patient for her surgery. Mike Garrido, vice president of mission integration for Saint Joseph Health System, said, “Dr. Foster’s petition from Jamaica wasn’t enough, Dr. Sekela’s position wasn’t enough, my position wasn’t enough; it took all three of us and Saint Joseph Hospital to vouch for this patient.”
When the temporary visa was granted in April, Garrido contacted Christ the King Cathedral to identify a host family who could provide transportation, housing and meals for the patient during her time in Lexington. Debbie Goonan, director of outreach ministries at Christ the King, put a notice in the church bulletin one Sunday and received a phone call the next day from Beverly and Louis Jaquith. The Jaquiths hosted Ms. Stephenson from April 23 through her surgery on the 26th and for several days after she was released from the hospital. “I would do it again,” said Beverly Jaquith. “Everybody said, ‘you didn't know her?’ That's beside the point. She needed help.”
Staff members of the Pastoral Care department at Saint Joseph Hospital foster spiritual values for healing, for patients and their families. Sister Laura Hardage, staff chaplain at the hospital, said of Ms. Stephenson, “She is a very grateful person with a positive attitude. She is very inspiring. I felt privileged to be with her.”
Dr. Sekela has donated his services multiple times over the years. “I come from an immigrant family,” he said. “I grew up in an environment where we didn’t have much; it was a part of life.”
Ms. Stephenson is grateful for all the care she received in Lexington from the surgeon, hospital staff and her host family. “To me it’s a miracle,” she said. “What got me here was faith, hope and charity.”
Saint Joseph Health System has a history of providing outreach to the poor and underserved, both at home and abroad. In fiscal year 2009, the health system provided more than $63 million in outreach care to Kentuckians for which limited or no reimbursement was received.