‘The right place at the right time’
When it came to his open heart surgery, Western Maryland Health System was the only option David DeWitt ever considered
More than a decade since his open heart surgery, David DeWitt makes the most of the time he has been blessed with. Now two and a half years into his retirement, each morning he walks six miles. The first three are spent leisurely snapping photos of the sunrise around Frostburg’s busy Main Street. The last three are enjoyed with his wife, Jeanie, by his side. The rest of his time is spent between his grandkids, working odd jobs around the house, fishing, watching sports and catching up on old movies.
In 2008, long before his retirement, David’s routine also included daily runs. That year, at a normal six-month checkup the Tuesday before his family’s beach vacation began, he mentioned to his doctor about a heartburn-like feeling he was getting about a half hour into his workout. “My doctor got serious with me and said we needed to get tested to rule out a few things,” David said. “The next day I went to Western Maryland Health System and had the nuclear stress test. Everyone was friendly, but matter of fact. That test was easy; I was in shape from running and had no shortness of breath or any other discomfort, even when the treadmill was inclined at a steep angle. I figured I had aced it and that my heartburn was really a stomach thing.”
That afternoon, David received a call from the heart unit at WMHS. “They said I needed a heart catheterization. It was then I knew something was wrong. I had the catheterization on Thursday and while I was on the table looking at the screen, they told me I needed surgery – that the flaps of my aortic valve were calcified. My heart was enlarged because it was compensating for the defect. I asked if all of this could wait until after our vacation that was starting on Saturday but was told the surgery could not wait.”
Later that day, David met with cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Mark Nelson. “He was thorough and patient and answered every question I had, no matter how crazy it seemed. I had the choice of either a mechanical valve or a tissue valve. He explained the pros and cons of both. I made my choice and set the surgery for Friday.”
Throughout the surgery, the WMHS staff kept Jeanie informed of the progress. “She kept a journal of the reports they gave her, and looking back, I cry every time I read it. It is comforting to know just how thorough and compassionate the staff was during that ‘routine’ event.
“Though it spanned five days from my first appointment through the surgery, it seemed like just a few minutes. I had no time to be scared or think too much. Many friends and family sent words of encouragement, and just about everyone knew someone who had a similar situation and assured me that everything would be ok.”
When it came to making such critical decisions over that five-day period nearly 11 years ago, David said there was never any question of where he would undergo such a critical operation. “In 2008 the WMHS heart unit and Dr. Nelson already had a stellar reputation. There was no need to go out of the area to put travel and logistic burdens on my family. Spiritually, I also felt guidance that I was in the right place at the right time. There was no question.”
After the surgery was over and recovery began, the same stellar care David received before the operation continued. “The nursing staff – all of them – were so attentive, so specific to my immediate, short-term and long-term needs,” he said. “Even after I got home, I had some minor challenges and I called a special number to get some advice. They answered immediately and assured me that it was ok and gave me advice on how to manage things. A few days after getting home, I got regular visits from a home health nurse and it was very reassuring to know that things were progressing. About a week or so later, I had an office visit with Dr. Nelson and one of his physician’s assistants. They were pleased with my progress, and, thankfully, that was the last visit to his office.
Having gone through the process first hand, David knows there is an urge to speculate about the course of such a major procedure. “It is only natural to consider your options,” he said, “but do the research and learn that there is no better healthcare anywhere. I know there are those who immediately want to go west or east to one of the larger hospitals, but they do so without all the facts. If the professionals at WMHS think you would do better at another facility, they will say so and make the arrangements. Your care is their main focus.”
Since his surgery, David has had many different experiences at WMHS in both a professional capacity before his retirement and as the concerned relative of several patients over the years. “I learned quickly that everyone – and I mean every one of the employees at WMHS – is putting patients first. From the nurses and doctors to the maintenance workers to the administrative staff to the security force to the volunteers to the committee members to the members of the Board and the executive staff. All of them have their priorities straight. I always marvel at the compassion and professionalism each person provides. There is absolutely no reason to go elsewhere for care. We are very fortunate to have WMHS so close.”
These days, David has a checkup about every eight months or so to ensure that his replacement valve is operating as it should. He knows that down the road he will likely need another procedure, but that thought never causes him to worry. “The valve has a normal life of about ten years,” he said. “Some have worn out sooner, some much later. My doctor will tell me when it will be time to replace the valve. I have no concerns.”
So, even though his next surgery draws closer by the minute, David will happily continue to walk the extra miles he’s been granted with Jeanie by his side and his kids and grandkids eager to join them in all sorts of fun family adventures.
“When it is time again, I will put my heart into the hands of the professionals at WMHS. There will be no discussion about going elsewhere. We will go there so that Jeanie and I can continue to walk each morning for the next several decades. Those are the best two hours of my day.”