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Two battles, one victory: Beacon heart and lung patient’s story of survival and resilience

Rick and Joann Phillips pose for a photo post-surgery.

Rick Phillips felt pretty good the day he went to Memorial Hospital’s emergency department. It was fortunate that he had been checking his blood pressure at home, or he would never have known that his top number had risen to over 210 – and he was having a heart attack.

Rick’s blood pressure had been great for years. But last year, it started to creep up a little bit more each time he had it checked. His family doctor suggested he test his blood pressure at home, so he did.

Then came the day that it spiked.

Alarmed, Rick went to the neighborhood fire station and asked them to check it, too. They got the same reading. So he went home and told his wife, Joann, “We need to go to the hospital.”

A shocking diagnosis

At Memorial Hospital, not only did Rick learn he was having a heart attack—the care team found a tumor in his lung, quite close to his heart. Rick’s heart was top priority, but the tumor’s presence could complicate surgery. His heart couldn’t be addressed until the care team understood what was happening with his lungs.

Dr. Daniel Weber, cardiothoracic surgeon, brought in other Beacon Medical Group experts to consult right away, including Dr. Muhammad Saqlain, oncologist, and Dr. Charbel Maskiny, the pulmonary (lung) specialist who performed biopsies to see if the tumor in Rick’s lung was cancerous (it was), and if the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

“I had biopsies, brain scans, all kinds of scans to look at my heart and lungs,” Rick said.

“Certainly this was a challenging and complex situation, and I was able to discuss the case with my partners, as well as Dr. Saqlain and Dr. Maskiny,” Dr. Weber said. “Ultimately, we decided that it would not be safe to perform his lung resection first without addressing his coronary disease.”

Rick Phillips and Dr. Charbel Maskiny.

Determining next steps

The Beacon care team determined Rick would need both a triple heart bypass procedure to restore blood flow to his heart and a lobectomy to remove the cancer from his lung.

“The tumor was right next to his heart where they were doing the bypass,” Joann said. “It was very complicated, and they had to work together as a team. I’m not sure every doctor would have taken this on, but Dr. Weber said he would fix it.”

Dr. Weber, in fact, performed both surgeries.

“Because of the tumor’s location in the left upper lobe near one of his bypass grafts, we felt it would be best to perform his lung surgery soon after his heart surgery to avoid risks of scar tissue forming, which would increase risk of injury to our bypass grafts,” Dr. Weber said.

He was able to use the DaVinci robotic-assisted surgical system to minimize the trauma to Rick’s body and performed the lung surgery without having to spread Rick’s ribs, which allowed for a smoother recovery.

Fortunately, the cancer had not spread, and the surgeries were successful. “I was so scared of the pain I knew was coming after the surgery, but I never had any,” Rick said.

He’s now cancer-free and has started rehabilitation therapy at Memorial for his heart and lungs.

“Those were two major surgeries within three days,” he said. “It’s not over. It’s going to be a process. You have to be comfortable with the recovery process.”

A photo of Rick’s caregivers at the Memorial ICU.

“They were like family”

Joann was touched by the team’s dedication to her husband; she knows Dr. Weber had been on the phone in the middle of the night with other doctors discussing Rick’s case. She never realized there was a cardiothoracic surgeon like Dr. Weber in South Bend – someone skilled enough to understand the full ramifications of Rick’s condition and able to do both surgeries.

“To have him be so aware of Rick’s entire situation – that was comforting to us,” she said.

Knowing the seriousness of Rick’s medical situation, Dr. Weber appreciated the family’s positive attitude.

“I was nervous if he would be able to tolerate two major operations in a short period of time. However, he rebounded from his heart surgery like it was nothing and did whatever we asked from him and never complained,” Dr. Weber said. “I couldn’t have asked for a more dedicated patient or supportive family that were with him every step of the way.”

He even proudly displays in his office a calendar of Rick’s photography that he received as a gift from the grateful couple.

“We felt like they were not just our team, they were like family. Everybody at Memorial was invested in Rick’s recovery. To me that’s beyond just being committed or caring,” Joann said. “The doctors assure us Rick will be good as new. We’re just so lucky and grateful to Memorial and these doctors and nurses. I’m not sure he’d be here without them.”

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Whether you are looking to understand your health risks, are living with an ongoing heart or blood vessel problem or have experienced a life-changing emergency, your Beacon care team is here to help – with the information, resources and care you need. Learn more about our care team and the services we provide: https://www.beaconhealthsystem.org/heart-vascular-stroke-care/