Sharing Mayo Clinic

Stories from patients, family, friends and Mayo Clinic staff

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Dec 23, 2015 · Holiday Season Brighter for Pulmonary Hypertension Patient After Surgery

Laura Floeckher found help for pulmonary hypertension at Mayo Clinic. The holiday season is much brighter this year for Laura Floeckhler, 45, from Orlando, Florida. Laura was diagnosed last Christmas with pulmonary hypertension, a rare disorder of the lungs affecting about 30 in every one million people.

Laura’s symptoms started earlier in 2014, when the mother of three began experiencing shortness of breath. Then her legs and ankles began to swell.

As Laura’s symptoms worsened, walking became such a struggle that she began filling a cooler with snacks to keep by her bed. “At one point I couldn’t walk 10 feet from my bedroom to the kitchen or living room,” she says. “Putting on a pair of pants would knock me out for the rest of the day.”

On Christmas day 2014, Laura was taken by ambulance to an Orlando community hospital, where she received the diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension. The diagnosis put her on a path to Mayo Clinic and regaining her life.

Difficult to diagnose

Laura was referred to Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus, where she met Charles Burger, M.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Pulmonary Hypertension and Vascular Diseases. The center is one of 26 designated centers recognized by the Pulmonary Hypertension Association for its integrative approach to patient care, research and education. With a team of experts, including cardiologists, pulmonologists, interventional radiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons, Mayo is one of the largest centers for treatment of pulmonary hypertension based on patient volumes.

“At one point I couldn’t walk 10 feet from my bedroom to the kitchen or living room. Putting on a pair of pants would knock me out for the rest of the day.” – Laura Floeckhler

“There are five different categories of pulmonary hypertension, so this can be a very difficult disease to diagnose and treat,” says Dr. Burger, who likens the condition to “a kink in a water hose.” That causes pressure to build, forcing the right side of the heart to work harder to increase blood flow to the lungs. Eventually, the heart enlarges and fails, Dr. Burger says.

Sadly, many patients with pulmonary hypertension are misdiagnosed because a number of conditions have similar symptoms, and the disease has often progressed by the time it is accurately identified. Because of this, some patients require a heart transplant or a heart-lung transplant.

“I didn’t know how complicated pulmonary hypertension was until I got it and began researching it,” says Laura, who on further testing, was found to have a subtype of the condition that causes blood clots in the lungs.

A surprising new option

Laura Floeckher found the answer for pulmonary hypertension at Mayo Clinic. Though pulmonary hypertension is a progressive disorder, some patients with Laura’s specific condition are eligible for a complex procedure known as pulmonary thromboendarterectomy, where surgeons scrape the clots from the pulmonary arteries. With the procedure, doctors said Laura could essentially be healed.

Getting her active lifestyle back was within reach, but Laura feared the worst. Though she hadn’t realized it before, Laura learned that another member of her family was diagnosed with the same condition at age 16 – but passed away due to complications.

Cardiothoracic surgeon Kevin Landolfo, M.D., assured Laura that technology had improved in the past 30 years. Still, thinking about Dr. Landolfo stopping her blood flow and cooling her body to 16-18 degrees Celsius to remove the clots was frightening.

“I was afraid I wouldn’t wake up,” Laura admits. But she opted to proceed, and in August 2015, underwent the surgery.

During the procedure, Dr. Landolfo removed the majority of blood clots and scarring from Laura’s lungs. “We allowed her lungs to improve, her pressures to go down, and that allows her heart to function in a much more efficient way,” says Dr. Landolfo.

Almost immediately post-surgery, Laura could tell the difference. “Just taking a breath was easier,” she recalls. And she was up and walking around the hospital floor the first afternoon.

Today, Laura is thrilled to be celebrating the holidays with friends and family, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the season. She’s able to walk freely, is back at work and is looking forward to adventures with her first grandchild.

“I love Mayo Clinic and what they did for me,” she says. “I feel normal … I feel like I can do it all.”

Learn more about Laura’s story and the surgery in the following video.



Nov 13, 2015 · Recovery Turns Into Cancer Battle for Avid Runner

Judi, center, with Dr. Horacio Asbun, Mayo Clinic surgeon (center), and her grandson Jude, at the 2014 Pancreatic Cancer Walk.

Judi Zitiello with her grandson, Jude, and Dr. Horacio Asbun, Mayo Clinic surgeon , at the 2014 Pancreatic Cancer Walk.



















An avid runner, Judi Zitiello, 66, was forced into a six-week hiatus when she developed a meniscus tear in early 2014. The retired financial executive was always active – exercising, hosting dinner parties, and volunteering to run the JT Townsend Foundation, a Jacksonville, Florida, philanthropic organization.

Judi wasn’t too concerned about the downtime at first. She knew her body would take time to heal. But the pain lingered. Then Judi began losing weight and her energy waned.

“I didn’t have the energy to get off the couch. I didn’t feel well. I was just not myself,” Judi recalls. Still, she thought it must be related to her knee injury.

But when she began experiencing severe itching on her arms and torso, and her stool turned a clay color, Judi knew it was time to see someone other than the physical therapist. Little did she realize she would be starting a fight against pancreatic cancer.

At the suggestion of friends, Judi met with Kristina DeMatas, D.O., a primary care physician and sports medicine expert at Mayo Clinic. Given Judi’s symptoms, Dr. DeMatas ordered an ultrasound, which showed a mass on Judi’s pancreas.

“I’m a healthy person, so this was not on my radar at all,” Judi says. “Anytime someone says ‘mass,’ you’re frightened.” Still, Judi admits she never thought she might have cancer.

The following day, Judi met with Mayo Clinic surgeon Horacio Asbun, M.D., who explained to her that the mass in her pancreas was blocking the main bile duct, and she needed to have it removed.

“Mayo Clinic is a high volume center for pancreatic cancer and pancreatic surgeries, and our integrated, multi-specialty approach to care means patients like Judi, have their case reviewed in a way that it’s as if the patient is receiving second, third and fourth opinions on what is the best treatment approach for them,” Dr. Asbun says.

“I feel blessed to have been treated at Mayo Clinic. I’m very vocal about my experience and tell everyone: If you have a problem, get to the Mayo Clinic, because they saved my life.” – Judi Zitiello

His recommendation: Perform the Whipple procedure, a complex operation to remove part of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, and the gallbladder.

Typically the Whipple procedure is used to treat pancreatic cancer that’s confined to the head of the pancreas, but it can also be used to treat other tumors and abnormalities of the pancreas, small intestine and bile duct. After performing the Whipple procedure, surgeons work to reattach the remaining portions of the digestive system so that the body can digest food and expel waste normally.

“The Whipple can usually only be done in a very small minority of patients who are diagnosed early on,” says Dr. Asbun, who has been performing the procedures for more than 20 years. Judi’s mass was in close proximity to neighboring vessels. So she was presented with two options: Proceed with the Whipple or undergo several weeks of chemotherapy to shrink the mass prior to surgery.

Dr. Asbun felt confident the Whipple was best and that the procedure could be minimally invasive, without opening the abdominal cavity.

“I felt it would be beneficial to proceed with surgery, not only because surgery remains the only treatment that potentially offers patients a cure, but also because looking at Judi as a whole person, she was psychologically more ready to proceed with surgery than to have to go through an attempt to reduce the size of the tumor,” he says.

“The unknown is frightening. But every fiber in my body was saying get this out,” Judi recalls. “And we felt such a confidence with Dr. Asbun, with the team.”

In May 2014, Judi awoke to the words, “You are cancer free, my lady.” And that, she says, was “a fantastic feeling.”

Though Judi ultimately underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy, she’s almost back to her old self, she says.

“I don’t run now, I walk. And I get a lot of exercise with the baby,” she says, referencing her 18-month-old grandson, Jude, born during her battle with cancer and who was named for her. “He was such a carrot for me,” Judi says. “He really helped me heal.”

Judi now spends much of her free time raising awareness for pancreatic cancer and advocating for research. She participates each year in the annual PanCan Walk and even donated her cells to the BioBank at Mayo Clinic, a research initiative that aims to build cell lines and test new treatments.

“I feel blessed to have been treated at Mayo Clinic,” Judi says. “I’m very vocal about my experience and tell everyone: If you have a problem, get to the Mayo Clinic, because they saved my life.”



Sep 10, 2015 · Team Marrion Steps Out for Heart Health

Katie and Marrion Ford. Every year, Katie Ford, who works at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus, can be found with a plastic jar and a stack of donation envelopes, encouraging colleagues to support the activities of the American Heart Association. In particular, she urges them to sign up for the annual First Coast Heart Walk, which Mayo Clinic sponsors.

Heart disease runs in Ford’s family, which is why she’s so passionate about supporting the cause and spreading the word about cardiovascular health.

Although he was 74-years-old, Ford’s father hadn’t been to a doctor’s office his entire adult life. When her mother was able to convince him it was time for a checkup, his doctors immediately identified issues.

“The doctor found he was 75 percent blocked and said he was a ticking time bomb for a heart attack,” Katie says. Her dad received a stent, and all was well for a number of years. However, his condition progressed, and he had a pacemaker and defibrillator installed in August 2014. 

Katie’s sister also was recently diagnosed with a heart condition and received a stent.

The impact of heart disease really hit home for Katie a few years ago, in 2010, when her husband of 24 years, Marrion, suddenly collapsed as the couple was preparing for a night out.

“I was on the floor with him, and my mom was here, and she called 911,” Katie says. “I was scared to death — just horrified.”

Doctors at Mayo Clinic found that her husband had an aortic aneurysm. They opted to take a watchful, waiting approach.

Katie knew a healthier lifestyle would help them both. She and her family began to focus on small changes, including dietary adjustments. Together, the Fords have lost 180 pounds.

Recognizing the pervasiveness of heart disease and her competitive spirit, Katie channeled her energy into raising money and awareness for cardiovascular health.

“I try to raise more money than anyone else. I tell my co-workers to save their change for what I call Spare Change Friday. Most of my colleagues are very generous,” she says with a smile. “Heart health affects so many. We have to raise awareness and education to help reduce the impact of heart disease and stroke.”

And, it adds up. Katie has been one of the top fundraisers for Team Mayo Clinic for the past several years, raising more than $20,000 in support of the American Heart Association.

Over the past 40 years, Mayo Clinic has received more than $30 million from the American Heart Association for research related to heart disease and stroke. Several physicians and researchers across the institution have received funds to further their research. The organization is the largest private funder of heart disease research.


Sep 4, 2015 · Critical Care Team Gives Young Mom Second Chance in Fight Against Cancer

Mayo Clinic cancer patient Hollis Younger enjoying timel with family. Three years had passed since Hollis Youngner, 34, had been diagnosed and treated for HER2+ breast cancer. So in late 2014, when the mother of one was “just feeling yucky, tired, nauseous,” she says cancer wasn’t even on her mind. “I was secretly excited, thinking of ways to tell everyone I was pregnant,” she says.

Unfortunately, a chest X-ray, prompted by a complaint of being short of breath, set in motion a series of events that ultimately resulted in a diagnosis of stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, a 45-minute CPR session, and questions about whether the young mom would even survive. 

Doctors in Hollis’ home state of Georgia found that cancerous cells had invaded her chest, causing fluid build-up around her heart. She was transferred by ambulance to Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus, where doctors were preparing for a delicate procedure to drain the fluid.

But shortly after her arrival, Hollis went into cardiac arrest.

A team of almost 30 people gathered at her bedside, working in tandem to do what Mayo Clinic does best – save lives. Representatives from critical care, nursing, respiratory medicine, pharmacy, midlevel practitioners and technicians worked for almost an hour to treat an unexpected pulmonary embolism.

To outsiders, spending so long doing CPR might seem unusual. But to intensivist John E. Moss, M.D., Critical Care, the dedication was necessary to give Hollis the best chance for a good outcome.

“We knew what was wrong with her. We just needed time for the medication to work,” says Dr. Moss. Following the CPR, Hollis was put into a hypothermic coma in hopes of avoiding brain damage.

“The doctors told us to hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” recalls Pete Livezey, Hollis’ father.

Miraculously, Hollis pulled through – and without any deficits. Today, Hollis is doing well. She continues her fight against breast cancer.

“The doctors and nurses, the staff at Mayo Clinic are amazing,” she says. But she’s particularly fond of Dr. Moss and the critical care team at the hospital. “Forty-five minutes. It gave me a second chance,” she says.

Watch the video below to learn more about Youngner’s story, which highlights the Mayo Clinic Model of Care.


Aug 16, 2015 · Patients Tell How Pain Rehabilitation Program Brought Them Relief

Christy Jeck discusses her experience at Mayo's Pain Rehabilitation Center in Florida. Three weeks. It sounds like a long time, especially if you’re going to a hospital or clinic every day.

But for people living with chronic pain, a daily, multi-week program is compelling if it can help them return to a more active lifestyle.

Established in 2011, the Pain Rehabilitation Center at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus offers a robust and integrated three-week outpatient program for adults affected by chronic pain and symptoms. A team of health care professionals, including doctors trained in pain management and pain psychology, physical and occupational therapists, biofeedback specialists, nurses and dietitians, teach strategies and techniques to improve function and quality of life. Treatment includes, but is not limited to, physical reconditioning, monitored medication reduction, and behavioral changes.

Seven graduates from the program recently shared their thoughts and advice on the program and offered insight for others coping with pain into the unique model of care offered at the center. You can find that video embedded in this post or click the names below for extended testimonials from each patient.

  • Michael, who was among the first patients to go through the program almost three and a half years ago, shares positive thoughts about the program as well as challenges.
  • Patient Herb, who admits he was initially skeptical, found inspiration after three weeks and offers advice to “give it a serious try … and you will be amazed.”
  • Christy and Jeff share their continued success after more than a year, as does Courtney, who graduated almost three years ago, and touts the supportive nature of the program. “There is so much PRC has to offer other than just the three weeks. It continues six months, a year after, through your whole lifetime,” she says.
  • Recent program graduates are also featured, including Joy and Geoffrey, who remind others that consistency is key to success. “How you live on a day to day basis and adapting what you’ve learned … that will, you will, succeed,” he says.

The Pain Rehabilitation Center program is open to patients within the U.S. and abroad.


Jul 20, 2015 · Patient Comes to Mayo for Foot Surgery, Receives Lifesaving Surprise

Virgil Jernigan is enjoying his retirement thanks to surgery to repair a leaky mitral valve.When Virgil Jernigan came to Mayo Clinic for foot surgery, he was in for a lifesaving surprise. During an exam before his surgery, he mentioned to his nurse practitioner that he had been feeling fatigued and short of breath. So she ordered cardiac testing. Virgil was shocked to learn he had a leaking mitral valve – a potentially life-threatening heart condition. 

After consultations with his cardiology/cardiothoracic surgery team, Virgil was cleared for his orthopedic procedure. He also ultimately underwent a second, minimally invasive surgery to repair his mitral valve.

Today, Virgil is back to walking, golfing and, finally, enjoying his retirement, thanks to the questioning nature and follow-up of his nurse practitioner at Mayo Clinic.

He tells his story in the video below.


May 11, 2015 · Brain Hemorrhage Can’t Keep Cyclist From Pedaling On

Donnie continues to recover from a brain hemorrhage that caused a stroke.

At age 42, Donnie DeWitt was the picture of health. A former Marine, he loved to run, surf and was an avid cyclist. But three years ago, while on a bike ride near his home in St. Augustine, Florida, Donnie collapsed. He’d suffered a massive brain hemorrhage that led to a stroke.

He was brought to Mayo Clinic’s Comprehensive Stroke Center in Jacksonville, where physicians said the damage was so extensive that Donnie had less than a five percent chance of survival.

“We didn’t know if he was going to live, what the outcome would be,” says Belinda, Donnie’s wife.

Despite the grim prognosis, and thanks to extensive surgeries, therapy and rehabilitation, Donnie has made a momentous recovery. He’s walking and talking, and is even back to biking again. Earlier this year he completed the Brooks Challenge Mile at the Gate River Run without any assistive device. 

In April 2015, he had a final surgery to replace a portion of his skull that was removed following an infection.

Watch the video below to learn more about Donnie’s story.


May 4, 2015 · Young Stroke Survivor Raises Awareness and Educates

Young stroke survivor Amy Edmunds and Dr. David Miller, director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida

Young stroke survivor Amy Edmunds and David Miller, M.D., director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus.

Editor’s Note: This guest post is written by Amy Edmunds, founder of YoungStroke.

In 2002, I was a daily commuter to Capitol Hill who worked in sales management. Never did I think I would someday return to testify as a patient advocate at Congressional hearings on behalf of young stroke survivors. But then again, never did I expect to be a stroke survivor at age 45.

On Jan. 11, 2002, with no identified risk factors and no family history, I had an ischemic stroke. Initially, my mother observed my repeating phrases during conversation. Next, she witnessed my temporary blindness. Today, I have no recollection of these events. And my resulting deficit remains some long-term memory loss.

Like many, I mistakenly assumed stroke was an affliction of the elderly. As I attempted to learn more about my own experience, I learned approximately 30 percent of people who suffer a stroke each year are under age 65. And women are at an increased risk for stroke. So, too, are African American individuals – many of whom have significant aftereffects. 

Ten months after my stroke, I enrolled in graduate studies, with a research focus of young stroke. In 2005, my research findings led me to launch YoungStroke Inc., a nonprofit patient advocacy organization benefiting young stroke survivors and their caregivers.

I came to realize that early detection and treatment for stroke is crucial to saving the life of anyone experiencing stroke, but ignorance about stroke symptoms means many young stroke patients experience misdiagnosis and delayed access to care. I recently heard a story about a young mother who had a stroke at her son’s soccer game. Doctors didn’t initially believe she was having a stroke, instead thinking she as on drugs!

While stroke poses devastating financial and physical burdens for anyone, young survivors particularly seem to struggle as they face overwhelming challenges to regain independence and return to their professional and family responsibilities, often which define their success.

In 2013, I returned to Capitol Hill to address the Rally for Medical Research on behalf of the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association. In 2014, I was elected to the board of directors of the World Stroke Organization.

Last year, I also had the opportunity to join forces with Mayo Clinic. During a visit to Mayo Clinic’s campus in Jacksonville, Florida, I met interventional neuroradiologist David Miller, M.D., who also serves as medical director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Mayo Clinic. Passionate about his job and education for the public, Dr. Miller, along with his colleagues, will co-host YoungStroke 2015 – the first international conference to address stroke among young adults – which takes place in Jacksonville June 27-29.

Sean Bretz with Neurosurgeon Rabih Tawk, M.D., a year after his stroke at 24.

Sean Bretz with neurosurgeon Rabih Tawk, M.D., a year after having a stroke at 24.

YoungStroke 2015 aims to raise awareness, increase knowledge and share good practice about stroke in young adults to improve patient outcomes. The event will feature other young stroke survivors, including Mayo Clinic patient Sean Bretz, who suffered a nearly fatal stroke at age 24. Today, he’s independent, graduated college, and like me, is working with other stroke patients.

Hearing about Sean and other patients, convinced me that the Mayo Clinic team epitomize the highest standard of excellence and leadership in stroke care.

Under Dr. Miller’s leadership, with the integration of medical, surgical and interventional therapies, Mayo Clinic was the first center in Florida to receive national Comprehensive Stroke Center certification from The Joint Commission. As well, he and his colleagues, James Meschia, M.D., and Kevin Barrett, M.D., also led in the creation of the first telestroke network in Florida and Georgia to treat stroke patients in rural areas with robotic medicine. The collective impact and leadership of the team at Mayo Clinic enables greater access to stroke care and reduces stroke mortality within a geographic region punctuated by at-risk populations.

As someone who didn’t think stroke was possible in young people, I invite you to join us and learn more about stroke. Together, we will raise awareness about stroke in general and educate others about young stroke.


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