Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Turned Away by 2 Hospitals, VA Saves Young Veteran's Life

December 7, 2010

Dr. Chu and Veteran Collins

Army Veteran Thaddeus Collins talks with Danny Chu, M.D., associate chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery during a follow-up appointment. The state-of-the-art infrastructure and team approach coupled with the surgical expertise at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center enables its staff to achieve good outcomes while performing high risk cases that other medical centers turn down.
PHOTO: Bobbi Gruner, Public Affairs Officer.

HOUSTON - Army Veteran Thaddeus Collins had his first heart attack three months ago. At 42 years old, he underwent an emergency coronary catheterization, a minimally invasive procedure using a thin, flexible tube that accesses the heart, at a local Houston hospital. Tests showed he had severe coronary artery disease stopping blood and oxygen from getting to his heart and blocked carotid arteries stopping oxygen from getting to his brain. Cardiac surgical specialists told him he would never survive surgery and prescribed medication

Two months later, he ran out of medication and went to another Houston hospital with symptoms of heart failure and chest pain. There, cardiac surgeons also turned him down for surgery because of the high risk for death and again treated him with medication.

“I was tired, depressed, and had just accepted I would not see my 8-month-old and 8-year-old daughters grow up,” said Collins. “People told me I should go to the VA because they have the best cardiac department in Houston so I thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’”

“Mr. Collins came to our Emergency Room complaining of sharp chest pains,” said Danny Chu, M.D., associate chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC). “We repeated the coronary artery catheterization and found diffusely diseased small coronary targets along with severely depressed cardiac function.”

“Mr. Collins came to our Emergency Room complaining of sharp chest pains,” said Danny Chu, M.D., associate chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC). “We repeated the coronary artery catheterization and found diffusely diseased small coronary targets along with severely depressed cardiac function.”

Chu and his multidisciplinary team evaluated Collins for a possible coronary artery bypass surgery procedure. With coronary bypass surgery, surgeons use healthy blood vessels taken from the patient’s arm, leg, chest, or abdomen and connect it to other arteries in the heart so blood can go around the diseased or blocked area.

“I had a lot of confidence in Dr. Chu and his team; otherwise, I would have walked out the door,” said Collins. “He took the time and explained every test, procedure, and result so I could understand everything. He has a great deal of compassion; that also reassured me.”

“Mr. Collins was extremely high risk because of the poor condition of his heart. He was also at risk for stroke due to his bilateral occluded carotid arteries,” said Faisal Bakaeen, M.D., chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the MEDVAMC and an associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM).

Collins’ only other possible surgical option was a heart transplant which has limited survival beyond 10 years plus life-long immunosuppressive therapy. The alternative, coronary artery bypass surgery, has a 10-year survival rate of more than 80 percent.

“It was difficult for me to put Mr. Collins on the wait list for a heart transplant because he is so young and most patients die before a suitable heart becomes available,” said Chu, who is also an assistant professor of surgery at BCM. “After much discussion with the patient, we performed successful quadruple coronary artery bypass surgery with the assistance of our surgical team experts.”

Collins recovered quickly from the surgery and was discharged seven days later without complications and free of all chest pain.

“I am so very glad the VA in Houston is here. I owe everything to Dr. Chu and all my doctors and nurses; they saved my life,” said Collins. “Today, I am living my life and can plan for a future with my children.”

“It is really the state-of-the-art infrastructure and team approach coupled with the surgical expertise at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center that allows us to perform such high risk cardiac cases,” said David H. Berger, M.D., M.H.C.M., Operative Care Line executive at the MEDVAMC and a professor of surgery at BCM. “This unique environment enables us to achieve good outcomes while performing high risk cases that other medical centers turn down.”


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Awarded re-designation for Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Services in 2008, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center serves as the primary health care provider for more than 120,000 veterans in southeast Texas. Veterans from around the country are referred to the MEDVAMC for specialized diagnostic care, radiation therapy, surgery, and medical treatment including cardiovascular surgery, gastrointestinal endoscopy, nuclear medicine, ophthalmology, and treatment of spinal cord injury and diseases. The MEDVAMC is home to a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic; Network Polytrauma Center; an award-winning Cardiac and General Surgery Program; Liver Transplant Center; VA Epilepsy and Cancer Centers of Excellence; VA Substance Abuse Disorder Quality Enhancement Research Initiative; Health Services Research & Development Center of Excellence; VA Rehabilitation Research of Excellence focusing on mild to moderate traumatic brain injury; Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center; and one of the VA’s six Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education, and Clinical Centers. Including the outpatient clinics in Beaumont, Conroe, Galveston, Houston, Lufkin, and Richmond, MEDVAMC outpatient clinics logged more than one million outpatient visits in fiscal year 2010. For the latest news releases and information about the MEDVAMC, visit www.houston.va.gov.