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California Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgeons

In the Press

A Celebration of Life

Veronica Sales and her children

From Caring Magazine, Fall 2007

On the night of December 11, 2005, Santa Paula resident Veronica Salas arrived at Community Memorial Hospital's Emergency Room with a failing heart and acute respiratory failure. She was in many ways experiencing the medical crisis of a 90-year-old patient - except Veronica was only 26.

“I couldn't accept that this young woman, this beloved wife, this mother of two young children, was going to die,” recalls Community Memorial Hospital nurse Lisa Baker, who was on duty that fateful night. “I had the perspective of being a mother myself. I couldn't imagine my three children losing me when I was so young. On top of that, I knew firsthand the heartache that faced Veronica's children, for I lost my mother when I was only nine years old.”

Thanks to a dedicated and expertly trained team of doctors, nurses and technicians, as well as CMH's commitment to state-of-the-art medical equipment - specifically, a $95,000 ABIOMED BVS 5000 ventricular assist blood pump system — Salas's two children, six-year-old Julia and 15-month-old Richard, were spared such heartache.

“In my 18 years as a doctor I have prayed for miracles and this one came true,” says CMH cardiac surgeon Dr. Dominic Tedesco. “I thank God I was given an opportunity to play a role in Veronica's recovery!”

“My role was actually quite small,” Dr. Tedesco modestly continued. “More than a hundred people and thousands of hours were involved in helping Veronica recover and making this happy occasion possible.”

The happy occasion was a “Celebration of Life” party held in Veronica's honor on March 23 at Community Memorial Hospital. She received a huge heart-shaped pillow signed by dozens of doctors, nurses and technicians who played a role in saving her life and heart.

"I don't remember anything, but I am so thankful to all of these wonderful people,” Veronica, who is two semesters shy of earning her degree at California State University Channel Islands, said through tears as she looked at many of the people who had cared for her. “My dream to become a teacher is still alive thanks to Dr. Tedesco and them. I don't recognize any of these faces, but now I won't ever forget them.”

Veronica's unforgettable story began unremarkably when she came down with the flu in early December. It persisted, then worsened, and she was eventually rushed to the E.R. where she was evaluated by Dr. Alex Kowblansky and the Emergency Department staff. Cardiologist Dr. Doug Wilkinson joined the team, and he in turn called in Dr. Tedesco from home around 1 a.m.

Veronica had viral myocarditis, a rare condition that occurs when the muscles in the walls of heart become infected with a virus. Despite not smoking or drinking, and having no family history of heart problems, she was experiencing heart failure.

Dr. Tedesco, Dr. Lamar Bushnell and CMH's renowned “Heart Team” decided to implant two ABIOMED ventricular assist devices, one on each side of her heart. During the open-heart operation, Veronica's heart stopped and required internal cardiac massage by Dr. Bushnell.

Ideally, by taking the workload for pumping the blood through the circulatory system off the heart, the damaged cardiac muscle can rest and potentially recover full function. Sometimes, however, the best it can do is buy time until a donor heart can be found for a transplant.

After the pumps were implanted, and it was determined Veronica had suffered no brain damage during the operation, she was placed on the list as a heart transplant candidate at UCLA Medical Center and transported there by Mercy Air.

“I helped take her to the helicopter,” says CMH critical care nurse Pilar Parker. “She was obviously really ill, but I was hopeful and honestly thought I would see her again.”

Fellow critical care nurse Theresa English shared similar optimism despite the tenuous situation: “When she left for UCLA, even if she needed a new heart, we had hope.”

It indeed appeared Veronica would become one of the 2,200 people who receive a heart transplant annually in the United States.

“The doctors (at UCLA) told me there was a 90 percent chance she would need a new heart,” recalls Pedro Salas, who took a leave from his construction job to spend every day, and night, by his wife's bedside for six weeks while his parents looked after the couple's two small children. It was especially hard on Julia. “She kept asking, 'Where's Mom? Where's Mom?'”

Mom was in a fight for her life. Seventeen days after the battle began, Dr. Tedesco received a phone call from UCLA's Dr. Mark Plunkett.

“I was very nervous about calling back,” Dr. Tedesco confides. “I was worried about the worst.” Recalling that phone conversation from December 29, his voice cracked with emotion:

“Dr. Plunkett told me he had successfully removed the ABIOMED. It was some of the best news I've ever heard in my life.”More great news soon followed. On New Year's Day, Veronica awakened in her hospital bed and talked to Pedro for the first time since her ordeal had begun.

“The first thing I remember is watching the Rose Parade on TV,” Veronica shares. “It was raining.”
But as far as Pedro was concerned, the sunshine in his life had returned. “I have more appreciation for life now,” he says. “I love my wife and kids even more than I realized. I realize how special each day is.”

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