Heart and Vascular Patient Story: Ellen Lorimer

Ellen LorimerResearcher Becomes Patient After Discovery of Rare Tumor

Life can turn on a dime. Just ask Ellen Lorimer of Oak Creek.

In July 2006, Ellen, then 35, was at work in the laboratory of the Cardiovascular Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin. As a research assistant, she is studying the role certain proteins play in lung cancer, breast cancer and atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries).

“I suddenly felt very dizzy,” Ellen said. A coworker noticed Ellen and suggested calling a paramedic. Ellen agreed. “The paramedics said I was fine, but suggested I go to the Emergency Department,” she said. Ellen visited the Emergency Department at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. “They determined I had an irregular heart beat (arrhythmia) and kept me overnight,” she said. “The next day, I had an echo stress test, which confirmed the arrhythmia.”

Ellen was then seen by cardiologist Jason Jurva, MD, in the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Heart and Vascular Center. “I was young and healthy, and he was uncertain why I was having a heart problem,” Ellen said. “Dr. Jurva ordered an MRI scan of my heart.”

At a follow-up appointment a week later, Ellen received the news: she had a tumor (an atrial myxoma) in her heart. She was stunned. “They weren’t sure how long the tumor had been there — problably at least a few years,” she said. It wasn’t known if the tumor had caused Ellen’s dizziness. But it was good that it was found.

Heart tumors are rare and usually benign. An atrial myxoma is one type of benign tumor that grows on the wall (septum) separating the two upper chambers (atria) of the heart. Myxomas are the most common type of these rare heart tumors. About 75 percent of them occur in the left atrium; the rest occur in the right atrium. Ellen’s tumor, located in the right atrium, was about the size of a nickel.

Dr. Jurva prescribed medication for Ellen’s arrhythmia and referred her to Alfred Nicolosi, MD, a Medical College of Wisconsin cardiac surgeon, for removal of the tumor.

“There’s no known cause for this type of tumor,” Dr. Nicolosi said. “If it’s not removed, there’s a risk it will grow larger and obstruct blood flow. Or bits of the tumor could break loose and lodge in the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.” (A pulmonary embolism is a sudden blockage in a lung artery, usually caused by a blood clot that travels through the bloodstream to the lung. If the clot is large, it can cause death.)

Dr. Nicolosi informed Ellen that there were two ways to remove the tumor — an open procedure, which involves a large incision in the middle of the chest, and a minimally invasive procedure, which uses a much smaller incision on the side of the chest.

“This less invasive approach typically results in a quicker recovery, less scarring and less blood loss,” Dr. Nicolosi said. Minimally invasive heart surgery can also be done to close a hole in the heart and perform valve surgery and other procedures. In the past, these were all open heart procedures.”

“Because the tumor could potentially cause problems in the future, I chose to have the surgery,” Ellen said “Dr. Nicolosi said I was an excellent candidate for the minimally invasive approach.”

“I felt scared and nervous about facing the surgery,” Ellen said, “but at the same time, I was fascinated by the whole thing. It’s amazing that surgeons can do these types of things.”

On December 4, 2006, Dr. Nicolosi performed Ellen’s surgery at Froedtert & the Medical College. To reach Ellen’s heart, he made a 4-inch incision on her right side, just under the breast, and then separated a few ribs. Another small incision was made in Ellen’s groin to connect her to a heart-lung bypass machine.

Following surgery, Ellen remained at Froedtert for five days. During her stay, she learned about CarePages, a free, personal and private Web site to help patients communicate with family and friends.

“It is a wonderful resource,” Ellen said. “I was able to update friends and family on the progress of the surgery and my recovery, and they were able to share their supportive messages.”

In addition, Ellen’s husband, Mark, and daughter, Stefanie, who was 5 years old at the time, were also very supportive. “My husband was caring and supportive throughout the whole process, which contributed to a smooth recovery. He took care of the daily household chores so our family routine remained the same.”

Ellen’s recovery went well, and by the third week post-surgery, she was able to enjoy short walks. Today, she’s back to her regular activities, which include exercising, gardening, playing sports and walks with her family. She continues to take arrhythmia medication.

“I feel lucky the events that led up to my surgery happened the way they did,” she said. “I’ve received the best treatment and care at Froedtert, and am very grateful to Dr. Nicolosi and everyone involved.”

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