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1 day ago · Embracing Life Wholeheartedly

When Kim Russell was born in 1960 with a congenital heart defect, doctors weren't optimistic about her survival. Today, thanks to the individualized care and personal support of her Mayo Clinic team, Kim has exceeded all expectations.

When Kim Russell was born in 1960 with a congenital heart defect, doctors weren’t optimistic about her survival. Today, thanks to the individualized care and personal support of her Mayo Clinic team, Kim has exceeded all expectations.


When Kim Russell was born 58 years ago, her skin wasn’t pink. It was blue. The color was due to a congenital heart defect that had profound implications for her life — then and now.

Kim’s heart has only one lower pumping chamber, or ventricle. When she was born, her pulmonary artery, which feeds blood into the lungs from the ventricle, also was malformed. As a result, Kim’s blood was poorly oxygenated. That made the blood blue, not red, when it was pumped throughout her body, leading to the blue appearance of her skin.

Despite her distressing symptoms, Kim was too small for surgery right after her birth. Until she grew strong enough for surgical intervention, Kim’s parents grappled with the possibility that their medically fragile daughter might not survive.

But Kim did survive. Through the years, she’s required ongoing medical care, though. And when she was in her teens, Kim and her family turned to Mayo Clinic, where Kim’s medical condition has been followed by experts in Cardiovascular Medicine ever since.

Buoyed by her Mayo Clinic care team, including cardiologist Carole Warnes, M.D., Kim became an advocate and voice for other people born with congenital heart defects. She wrote a memoir titled In a Heartbeat.

Decades of individualized care have fostered gratitude in Kim for the Mayo team that has safeguarded her health and enabled her to face an uncertain future with courage.

“I have loved Mayo from the beginning,” says Kim, who lives in Georgia. “Dr. Warnes just has a way with people. She never makes me feel afraid. Are there times where I’ve been scared? Yes. But she always has a way of making it seem like it’s not that bad.”

Navigating early life

When it comes to heart defects, Kim’s condition is fairly serious, according to Dr. Warnes. “Most people have two pumps in their heart, called ventricles. The right ventricle pumps blood to the lungs where it picks up oxygen. The left ventricle receives blood back from lungs, then pumps it through the body,” Dr. Warnes says. “Kim was born with only one pump, a single ventricle.”

Because of her condition, the oxygen-poor blood from Kim’s heart and the oxygen-rich blood from her lungs mix together in the single ventricle. What’s more, Kim’s pulmonary artery, which delivers blood to the lungs to receive oxygen, never grew properly.

To increase the circulation of oxygen-rich blood through her body, when she was 3 months old, Kim received a Blalock-Taussig shunt. The shunt created a connection between Kim’s subclavian artery and pulmonary artery. That allowed more oxygen-rich blood to get to her lungs. When she was 4, Kim received a second shunt.

If Kim had been born today, the remedy for her condition would look drastically different than it did in the 1960s, according to Dr. Warnes. At that time, the shunting procedures were the most advanced surgical treatment available.


“My cardiologist was worried that he wasn’t seeing something because there was no way that somebody with my condition could live that long.”

Kim Russell

“More than 60 years ago, surgeons didn’t think it was possible to operate on the heart at all. This is a very different scenario from now,” Dr. Warnes says. “Back then, the only thing available for babies was creating these surgical shunts outside the heart.”

After the shunts were placed, Kim’s parents allowed her to live as ordinary a life as possible.

She rode her bike and played with friends, if only for brief periods. If she pushed herself too hard, Kim would turn blue. When that happened, it was a sign she needed to rest.

“My doctors gave my parents some good advice,” Kim says. “They said: ‘She has a heart condition. Do not make her into an invalid. Let her do what she wants to do because when she gets tired, she won’t be able to do anything.’ And my parents let me do that.”

Enjoying normalcy, thanks to specialized care

Kim’s second shunt markedly improved her health, but her surgeons were unable to predict how well the shunts would work or how long they would last. As she grew, the shunts enabled Kim to live a normal life, albeit a little more slowly than individuals with healthy hearts.

When she was a teen, Kim’s family moved to Georgia, and she sought care from a team of Atlanta-based physicians. As an active high school student, Kim was involved in extracurricular activities and worked a part-time job. Although all seemed well, her healthy appearance perplexed her care team.

“My cardiologist was worried that he wasn’t seeing something because there was no way that somebody with my condition could live that long,” Kim says.

Kim was referred to a different health care facility. That referral led to another: this time to Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus.

At Mayo Clinic in 1976, Kim was seen by team of physicians from the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine. Tests to determine how well her shunts were working revealed nothing was wrong with them. Kim’s team informed her that she eventually would need another operation to replace the old shunts. But because the previous repairs continued to serve her well, it was best to leave them alone. Kim was advised to return home, continue being monitored and come back to Mayo when her local care team determined the shunts needed replacement.


“I didn’t need that third surgery until I was 32, which is pretty amazing.”

Kim Russell

So Kim went about her life. She graduated from high school and went to college. When she was 20, she fell in love and got married. A year later, she and her husband adopted a daughter. Kim worked a full-time job. She wrote a book. She started a nonprofit for individuals with congenital heart malformations.

In her early 30s, however, the two shunts that had allowed for her active life began to fail. “At the time, I was working 14-hour days, four to five days a week, and I was slowing down,” Kim says. “But I didn’t need that third surgery until I was 32, which is pretty amazing.”

When Kim returned to Mayo Clinic in December 1992, her medical team suggested the shunts be surgically replaced. The night before her surgery, Kim met with cardiac surgeon Gordon Danielson, M.D., to talk about the operation. She learned that both of the Blalock-Taussig shunts would be removed. In their place, two new shunts would form vital connections to enhance her blood supply. One of the shunts, a central shunt, would connect a branch of the aorta to the pulmonary artery.

“I had lived with those shunts my entire life. They were keeping me alive,” Kim says. “It was an emotional and frightening night. Dr. Warnes came in and assured me that she would not let me go through the surgery if she was not confident about the outcome. Of course, surgery is always risky, but the benefit far outweighed the risk.”

Kim says that the first few days and weeks after surgery were difficult. But since her operation, she has done amazingly well.

“Years ago, people would never imagine a patient with a single ventricle would make it beyond childhood or early adolescence, never mind their late 50s,” Dr. Warnes says. “The function of this one pump working instead of two has really done quite well over the years.”

Speaking from experience

Since her third operation, Kim has continued to receive follow-up care at Mayo Clinic. “They have done a wonderful job,” Kim says. “The Mayo system is just a breath of fresh air. I love coming here.”

Through the years, Kim has required medications to manage symptoms associated with having abnormal heart structures. Issues such as high blood pressure in her lungs and an irregular heartbeat have required prescription medication with side effects of their own. One of Kim’s medications caused her to develop thyroid disease, and she had her thyroid removed in 2007.


“Kim deals with all of it with extraordinary courage.”

Carole Warnes, M.D.

While Kim’s condition has presented her with challenges, it also has fueled in her a desire to connect with others and provide education about congenital heart disease. Sixteen years ago, she and her husband became involved in Camp Braveheart, a summer camp for children with congenital heart defects. They also became involved with the Adult Congenital Heart Association. In 2004, at Dr. Warnes’ urging, Kim spoke publicly about her medical journey for the first time. Two years later, her memoir was published.

From Dr. Warnes’ perspective, Kim’s acts of giving back — even amid a lifetime of uncertainty — are a testament to the fortitude and determination that have developed as a result of her condition.

“Kim deals with all of it with extraordinary courage,” Dr. Warnes says. “She, like so many of these patients, tries to be as normal as possible. I’m happy she’s grateful for the care she’s received, but she very much wants to give back.”


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4 days ago · Puzzling Symptoms Explained by Hydrocephalus Diagnosis

It took some time to discover the source of the troubling symptoms that plagued Dorothy Sorlie. But once she was diagnosed with normal pressure hydrocephalus, neurosurgery fixed the problem and allowed Dorothy to return to the activities she loves.

It took some time to discover the source of the troubling symptoms that plagued Dorothy Sorlie. But once she was diagnosed with normal pressure hydrocephalus, neurosurgery fixed the problem and allowed Dorothy to return to the activities she loves.


For two years, Dorothy Sorlie struggled with symptoms that appeared unrelated and progressively got worse. The 77-year-old Eau Claire, Wisconsin, resident says she lost interest in the activities she previously enjoyed. She began to struggle with walking and constantly feared a fall. She also developed urinary incontinence.

“My decreased mobility was blamed on my arthritis and my right foot, which needed surgery,” Dorothy says. “My lack of interest … I blamed on pain. The reality was that I was unable to concentrate. The foot surgery recovery was very difficult, and it was then that the urinary incontinence became a tough situation.”

Uncovering the cause

As her symptoms became worse, Dorothy tried various treatments, but none seemed to make a difference. Through it all, Dorothy’s physician, Kevin Wergeland, M.D., an Internal Medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, did not give up.

A CT scan finally revealed the source of the problem. Ordered after an appointment with Catherine Schmidt, D.O., a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician, the scan showed that Dorothy had developed a condition called normal pressure hydrocephalus.

The fluid-filled chambers, or ventricles, in Dorothy’s brain were enlarged due to an accumulation of extra cerebrospinal fluid, which normally flows through the ventricles and bathes the brain and spinal column. Although the fluid pressure in her brain was normal, the enlarged ventricles were disrupting nearby brain tissue. That was affecting Dorothy’s brain function and causing her symptoms.


“In the best candidates for surgery, a shunt is effective 50 to 60 percent of the time. The results are very dramatic for those who do get better.”

Jonathan Bledsoe, M.D.

Dorothy met with Jonathan Bledsoe, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, who explained why normal pressure hydrocephalus can be difficult to diagnose and discussed her treatment options.

“These patients present typically with three kinds of symptoms: dementia, gait instability and incontinence,” Dr. Bledsoe says. “Unfortunately, several other things can cause these symptoms, as well.”

Normal pressure hydrocephalus can be a result of head trauma, an infection or complications of surgery. People also can develop normal pressure hydrocephalus for no obvious reason, and that was the case for Dorothy. Although it can happen at any age, hydrocephalus occurs more frequently among infants and adults 60 and older.

Achieving relief

The most common treatment for hydrocephalus is the surgical insertion of a drainage system, called a shunt. It consists of a long, flexible tube with a valve that keeps fluid from the brain flowing in the right direction and at the proper rate. One end of the tubing usually is placed in one of the brain’s ventricles. Then the tubing is routed under the skin to another part of the body where the excess cerebrospinal fluid can be more easily absorbed, such as the abdomen or a chamber in the heart.

A few days after her diagnosis, Dorothy had a shunt surgically implanted by Dr. Bledsoe. “In the best candidates for surgery, a shunt is effective 50 to 60 percent of the time,” says Dr. Bledsoe. “The results are very dramatic for those who do get better.”

After surgery and the rehabilitation that followed, Dorothy reported to Dr. Wergeland that she felt much better. He says: “After treatment, she has, thankfully, improved and has said this to me many times: ‘I have my life back.'”

Now Dorothy is busy enjoying the activities she loves and spending time with her family. “I’m so very blessed,” she says.

Note: A version of this story previously was published in Hometown Health.


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6 days ago · Comprehensive Care Makes for a Brighter Future

When Stephanie Van Doren came to Mayo Clinic, she never expected to learn she had a genetic defect that raised her risk for a potentially fatal heart condition. But thanks to her physician's all-inclusive approach, Stephanie and her family now have information they need to live life to the fullest.

When Stephanie Van Doren came to Mayo Clinic, she never expected to learn she had a genetic defect that raised her risk for a potentially fatal heart condition. But thanks to her physician’s all-inclusive approach, Stephanie and her family now have information they need to live life to the fullest.


Abdominal issues and difficulty swallowing sent Stephanie Van Doren to a local hospital near her home in Tampa, Florida. Unable to eat or drink, the 40-year-old mother of three had lost significant weight. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with gastritis — inflammation of the stomach lining — and sent home.

But when symptoms continued, including chest pain, Stephanie knew she needed another opinion. A friend recommended Mayo Clinic.

In early 2017, Stephanie traveled to Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus and met with Timothy Woodward, M.D., a gastroenterologist. He diagnosed her with eosinophilic esophagitis — a disorder that causes buildup of white cells in the lining of the esophagus and is a major cause of digestive system illness.

“I liked him immediately because he took time to talk to me and listen to my answers,” recalls Stephanie of her first encounter with Dr. Woodward.

Together, the two developed a care plan and, over time, Stephanie’s condition improved. On a subsequent visit, though, Dr. Woodward recognized Stephanie might have another issue.

“It’s important for me, when I’m taking care of someone, to look at them each time they come in and go over any concerns,” Dr. Woodward says.

Seeing the whole person

Over the years, numerous people in Stephanie’s extended family had died as a result of aortic dissections. An aortic dissection is a serious condition in which the inner layer of the large blood vessel that branches off from the heart, the aorta, tears. The condition is often fatal.

“Although we had settled her esophagus issues, I was concerned when we were talking about her family members and how many had passed suddenly from these heart issues,” Dr. Woodward says.


“Most doctors talk to you about their one area. Dr. Woodward talked to me about me. He talked to me about my family, my life.”

Stephanie Van Doren

In his physical exam, Dr. Woodward recognized Stephanie’s long, thin limbs and hyperflexible joints as traits that can be associated with several genetic disorders. He knew if such a disorder was identified promptly, Stephanie may be a candidate for therapy to reduce her risk for future problems. He referred Stephanie to the Department of Clinical Genomics for evaluation.

“Most doctors talk to you about their one area. Dr. Woodward talked to me about me. He talked to me about my family, my life,” Stephanie says. “He really cares about his patients.”

Equipped to make informed decisions

Stephanie’s evaluation in Clinical Genomics uncovered a significant issue. She learned she had a mutation in the ACTA2 gene that has been shown to cause thoracic aortic aneurysms and dissections. It is estimated that approximately 20,000 people in the U.S. die annually from these conditions.

“To some degree, I knew something was amiss, but never expected this,” Stephanie says.

She was unnerved by the news. “It was definitely scary knowing what could happen to me,” Stephanie says. “I felt like I had a ticking time bomb.”

But once she met with Mayo Clinic experts in Cardiovascular Medicine to learn more about the condition and how to reduce her risk, Stephanie became more confident.

“I still have to live my life, but I know what I can and can’t do,” she says. “And I know my providers are watching me closely.”


“One of the pleasures of being here at Mayo Clinic is having time to be proactive and pursue ideas that may positively impact our patients.”

Timothy Woodward, M.D.

Based on the knowledge Stephanie gained, her family decided that her children also would be tested for the genetic variable. The oldest is not affected, but Stephanie’s younger son and daughter tested positive. And though Stephanie admits she struggles some days knowing her children have more to worry about as they grow, she’s glad her family has the information.

“They will become more educated as they age and be able to make proactive decisions to live their lives to the fullest,” she says.

Thanks to the collaborative nature of Mayo Clinic, Dr. Woodward remains involved in Stephanie’s ongoing care — even sharing updates on potential medication that could slow or prevent the progression of her disease.

“One of the pleasures of being here at Mayo Clinic is having time to be proactive and pursue ideas that may positively impact our patients,” he says.

“I’m so thankful to Dr. Woodward and the team at Mayo Clinic,” Stephanie says. “I feel good. I live every day, and I have hope for the future.”


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Mon, Feb 11 11:39am · Quick, Coordinated Action Solves a Polar Problem

Just as things were settling down in the aftermath of a polar vortex in the Midwest, a new issue presented itself at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. And staff stepped up to meet the challenge.

Just as things were settling down in the aftermath of a polar vortex in the Midwest, a new issue presented itself at Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus. And staff stepped up to meet the challenge.


When the sun rose on Thursday, Jan. 31, staff at Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus found themselves on the tail end of an arctic outbreak of historic proportions. The mercury had dipped to 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit in Rochester, Minnesota, that morning, but an end to the bitter cold was in sight. The weather forecast predicted a significant warmup later in the day. A sigh of relief and a 70-degree temperature swing were on the horizon.

Members of the Healthcare Incident Command System — a multidisciplinary team that’s mobilized when routine operations at Mayo Clinic are interrupted — thought everything would be back to normal by the afternoon.

Then an alarm sounded on the twelfth floor of the Guggenheim Building. The incident command group had another challenge coming its way.

No air exchange, no climate control

Guggenheim 12 houses mechanical systems for the building that is home to an array of laboratories. Hundreds of Mayo Clinic research staff work in Guggenheim, studying everything from mechanisms of stem cell aging to viral and gene therapies. All three of the building’s air handling units had frozen in the extreme cold. That meant a controlled air supply and climate control no longer were possible on floors 13 through 20.

Joseph Schneider, unit head for mechanical systems in Facilities Operations, and Cameron Wood, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) shop supervisor, went to assess the situation. What they found wasn’t good.

The water coils in the air handling units had frozen. They had to be thawed out, and then checked for leaks and repaired. It wasn’t going to be a quick fix. And because all three units were out of commission at the same time, the usual option of using a backup unit was not available.

That situation prompted a second activation of the Healthcare Incident Command System — this time with significant input from Hilary Blair, Research Operations administrator and Nicole Thome, biosafety coordinator.

They had to figure out the answers to two important questions: Are staff on the affected floors safe? Is any research in danger? Most of the affected floors contain eight to 10 laboratories. In all, more than 300 staff member were thrust into uncertainty that morning. “I needed to get over there to understand the impact,” Blair says.


“Research typically isn’t pulled into [the Healthcare Incident Command System], and we really appreciated the support structure they provided.”

Nicole Thome

Together with Thome and colleagues from Facilities Operations and Environmental Services, Blair made the first of many rounds at Guggenheim, carefully assessing the situation on each of the upper floors.

“My concern was safety,” Thome said. “If we have an HVAC impediment, is that going to change how we’re working safely in the building?”

Even though chemical hoods and ducted biosafety cabinets were technically working, it was decided to post signs asking staff not to use them. “The hoods would not have been functioning in a way that would safely ventilate chemical and biological substances,” Blair explains.

There also was concern about air pressure. Due to the unregulated airflow, hallway doors became hard to open or would slam shut, and elevator doors wouldn’t completely close.

Freezers in jeopardy

Once the team established that staff members were not in any danger — though much of their work was halted — attention shifted to another concern. By noon, the focus was on the more than 100 freezers that contained samples and other substances for use in research experiments.

“The value of those assets can’t be overstated,” Blair says.

While the freezers kept running, the temperature in the rooms where the freezers were housed rose to over 100 degrees, due to the problems with the heating system. That put an enormous strain on the freezers’ compressors, as they worked to keep their contents at 80 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

“If the freezers fail, and we have to clean them up and move the contents out of the building, we’d have to follow Department of Transportation regulations, which would present a huge logistical challenge,” Thome says.

Blair and Thome put their confidence in their colleagues from Facilities Operations, who, together with a team of local plumbers and sheet metal workers, worked feverishly to get the first air handling unit back up and running.

They succeeded. The first air handling unit came back online that evening. That seemed to stabilize the temperature in the freezer rooms. But it turned out that one revived air handling unit was not enough.

More work to be done

“My heart sunk when the freezer rooms were still over 80 degrees,” Blair says. “We needed to make sure these freezers weren’t going to fail.”

Plumbers immediately began work on the second air handling unit. They worked through the night in an attempt to make the necessary repairs. But by Friday morning, Schneider had bad news.

“Unit two had so many breaks in the water coils, they were not repairable,” he says. “At that time, we decided to run the unit without the coils and try to repair the third air handling unit.”

After another morning of intense repair work, the picture looked much more hopeful. By noon, the second air handling unit was running again, albeit with reduced capacity. Nevertheless, the building was fully operational, and staff could resume their normal work.

Plumbers continued to work throughout Friday and much of Saturday to repair as many of the coils as they could on the third unit.

Teamwork shines through

“I really have to commend the entire team,” Schneider says. “They had to deal with an enormous amount of breaks that had to be repaired.”

Blair also has high praise for Schneider’s team and the contractors who worked to get the upper floors back online. “They were very responsive and very communicative,” she says. “We would not have gotten through it without them.”

Blair adds that many research teams pitched in to monitor temperatures. One supervisor even volunteered to spend the night in Rochester, in case things went awry.


“The collaborative spirit from all involved, coupled with formal incident response processes, provided a foundation for effective coordination and communication, and successful recovery.”

Byron Callies, Jr.

Thome also praises Blair for her efforts as a “boots on the ground administrator” and points to members of the staff who were willing to walk the floors to protect colleagues, equipment and assets. And she’s grateful for the support her team received from the Healthcare Incident Command System.

“I was impressed,” Thome says. “Research typically isn’t pulled into that group, and we really appreciated the support structure they provided.”

That’s great feedback for Byron Callies, Jr., from Mayo’s Clinical and Business Continuity/Emergency Management, who served as incident commander when the Healthcare Incident Command System was activated.

“A less-coordinated effort could have resulted in significant disruption or even loss of critical research,” Callies says. “The collaborative spirit from all involved, coupled with formal incident response processes, provided a foundation for effective coordination and communication, and successful recovery.”

Thome adds that she was impressed with the process from beginning to end. “We really didn’t lose more than one workday, and credit goes to the massive team involved.”


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Mon, Feb 11 7:00am · A Lifetime of Gratitude for Lifesaving Cancer Care

Thirty years ago, Brad Morris' life came to a grinding halt when a rare, life-threatening tumor was found in his chest. Hoping for the best possible outcome, Brad sought care at Mayo Clinic, where he found expert oncology and surgical teams that gave him a chance at survival.

Thirty years ago, Brad Morris’ life came to a grinding halt when a rare, life-threatening tumor was found in his chest. Hoping for the best possible outcome, Brad sought care at Mayo Clinic, where he found expert oncology and surgical teams that gave him a chance at survival.


In 1988, Brad Morris was a 25-year-old, first-time father to a baby boy when a softball-size mass was discovered lodged in the space between Brad’s lungs. He learned that if the mass wasn’t removed, he wouldn’t survive.

Physicians in Brad’s hometown of Joliet, Illinois, biopsied the tumor, which measured about 16 inches around. Pathologists couldn’t immediately determine if the mass was malignant or benign.

“My surgeon informed me that he planned on removing the entire tumor along with my entire right lung — even though the tumor had not invaded the lung — to ensure it all was removed,” Brad says. “He said if it was benign, my prognosis would be relatively good. If the tumor was malignant, my prognosis would be extremely poor.”

While Brad weighed his options, his parents and his wife encouraged him to seek a second opinion. He received a referral to Mayo Clinic. A short plane ride later, he found himself in an exam room at Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus with Patrick Burch, M.D., who was an oncologist in Medical Oncology at that time.

After reviewing Brad’s pathology reports, Dr. Burch and a team of oncologists determined the tumor was a malignant mediastinal teratoma. Teratomas, a type of germ cell tumor, are the product of misplaced embryonic, gonadal stem cells. They can contain a variety of cells, such as bone, skin, hair and teeth. Teratomas occurring outside the testicles and ovaries, such as in the portion of the chest called the mediastinum, are rare.


“I am forever indebted to Mayo Clinic and the outstanding physicians who knew how to aggressively combat my extremely complicated tumor.”

Brad Morris

Rather than recommend a radical surgery as Brad’s first course of action against the cancer, Dr. Burch offered a different strategy: an intense course of chemotherapy that would shrink the tumor. After that, thoracic surgeon Victor Trastek, M.D., would remove what remained of the mass.

“I was feeling pretty gloomy about my prognosis at the time. All the research I did didn’t sound real optimistic,” Brad says. “But Mayo Clinic was able to completely change that and give me a more positive outlook and more hope than I had had. Mayo Clinic understood right away how to treat it.”

Fast-forward 30 years, and Brad is cancer-free, leading a life rich in relationships and professional fulfillment. He’s a happy father of four and superintendent at an elementary school in Centralia, Illinois. Underscoring his life’s successes is the belief that all that he has was enabled by the lifesaving care he received decades ago.

“Mayo Clinic has been an important part of my life and maybe the reason for my life,” Brad says. “I am forever indebted to Mayo Clinic and the outstanding physicians who knew how to aggressively combat my extremely complicated tumor.”

Aiming for a cure

Brad was in the prime of his life when his cancer was discovered. In the preceding years, he’d earned a college degree in education, gotten married and stared a family with his wife, Robyn. At the time, he worked in the medical unit of an insurance company.

As someone with a history of robust health, Brad sought medical attention when he developed a chronic cough that wouldn’t let up. He made several visits to his primary care physician, but the doctor didn’t notice anything suspicious.

“They thought I had an upper respiratory infection,” says Brad, adding that he was prescribed antibiotics to combat his cough.

When his symptoms persisted, Brad returned to the doctor. On one of his visits, he was met by a substitute physician who listened to his chest sounds.

“She said she didn’t hear anything real bad, but said, ‘Let’s take an X-ray to play it safe,'” Brad says. “We took the X-ray, and she said there was something there. It was a large mass covering the entire right lung.”

Large areas in the chest, or thorax, allow mediastinal teratomas to grow to a significant size before they cause symptoms, Dr. Trastek explains. “He was young. He wasn’t getting chest X-rays, so there’s really no way to know it was there.”

Brad’s tumor was large when it was discovered and included a variety of cells, including testicular cancer cells.


“Dr. Burch had done a lot of work on that kind of tumor and found that if you treated it very aggressively, it can be cured.” 

Victor Trastek, M.D.

“These are weird tumors,” says Dr. Trastek, who is now an emeritus professor in Mayo Clinic’s Department of Thoracic Surgery. “They come from a stem cell phenomenon and can grow teeth. They can have hair and all sorts of weird things inside of them.”

The fact that his mediastinal teratoma was composed mainly of testicular cancer cells, even though Brad didn’t have cancer activity in his testicular region, meant there was a good likelihood chemotherapy would shrink it.

“It’s one of the male tumors that is actually curable,” Dr. Trastek says. “Dr. Burch had done a lot of work on that kind of tumor and found that if you treated it very aggressively, it can be cured.”

To that end, Brad immediately began chemotherapy. He was admitted to Mayo Clinic Hospital — Rochester, Saint Marys Campus and began a five-day course of the intravenous medicine.

“They had me on three different chemos going through the IV for five days, 24 hours a day,” Brad says. “The regime was once a month, and I came back every month from November 1988 to February 1989.”

By February, scans revealed the 16-inch tumor had shrunk to the size of a golf ball. Brad was prepped for surgery.

“Dr. Burch never really said we were going to shoot for the cure during my early stages of treatment,” Brad says. “But when I was preparing for surgery, he told me that we were going for the knockout punch. They were going for the cure.”

Cherishing life’s gifts

During Brad’s complex surgery, Dr. Trastek extracted what remained of the tumor. Because the mass was still attached to his right lung, one-third of the lung’s upper lobe was removed. To remove the golf ball-sized growth, Dr. Trastek had to cut through nerve tissue. As a result, the right side of Brad’s diaphragm became paralyzed.

After Brad recovered from surgery, which included reinflating a collapsed right lung, he returned to Illinois. Every month for a year, he went back to Mayo Clinic to check for recurrence. After his first year of remission, his rechecks gradually were reduced to once every year until he reached five years cancer-free.

As time passed, and Brad became more optimistic about survival, his priorities shifted.


“I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for Dr. Burch and his incredible oncology team, and the remarkably skillful hands of Dr. Trastek.”

Brad Morris

“The appreciation of life and family — everything just changed drastically,” Brad says. “When I started to realize things were looking good, I went back to school and got a master’s in education administration and a specialty certification to be a school superintendent.”

Prior to chemotherapy, Brad’s medical team informed him the drugs might render him sterile. But since then, he and Robyn welcomed three more children to their family.

Throughout his life, Brad has looked back with awe and gratitude at this time at Mayo Clinic and the way in which his care was handled.

“When Dr. Burch came into the room, he had a team of oncologists with him and strategized about the best course of treatment with the team. It wasn’t just one person determining my treatment. It was the whole team,” Brad recalls. “I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for Dr. Burch and his incredible oncology team, and the remarkably skillful hands of Dr. Trastek.”


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Thu, Feb 7 3:18pm · What A Doctor Learned When He Became A Patient

As a cardiologist, Andrew Calvin, M.D., is very familiar with the world of health care. But when he found out he needed surgery, he was a little unnerved. Support from his spouse and care team got him through it, though, and taught him some important lessons along the way.

As a cardiologist, Andrew Calvin, M.D., is very familiar with the world of health care. But when he found out he needed surgery, he was a little unnerved. Support from his spouse and care team got him through it, though, and taught him some important lessons along the way.


Andrew Calvin, M.D., spends plenty of time in a doctor’s office — his own. Dr. Calvin, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, cares for patients every day. But he says his eyes were opened when the tables were turned, and he became the patient.

“I had nagging back pain that I thought was from a run-of-the-mill muscle strain,” Dr. Calvin says. “I took over-the-counter medications and left it alone for a month — probably too long.”

When Dr. Calvin started to feel pain shooting down his left arm, he went to see his primary care provider, who referred him to Physical Therapy. But the pain continued, so he made an appointment with Scott Spritzer, D.O., a Mayo Clinic Health System neurologist.

“He picked up that I had some arm weakness, which I did not know about,” Dr. Calvin says. “At that point, I knew that surgery was a real possibility, and I was scared.”

An MRI revealed that Dr. Calvin had a compressed nerve in his neck.

Asking the right questions

Dr. Calvin brought his wife, Leah, along to his next appointment with Jonathan Bledsoe, M.D., a spine and neurological surgeon. He says having her there was helpful.

“She had a notepad with questions I would not have remembered to ask,” Dr. Calvin says. “I have to admit I felt silly, as a doctor, having to ask some very basic questions.”

Dr. Bledsoe says having a second or even a third pair of ears in the room for such an appointment is helpful, and no patient should ever be embarrassed to ask a simple question.


“The team was great. I would send a family member or any of my patients to them in a heartbeat.”

Andrew Calvin, M.D.

“Once I say, ‘I’m going to have to do surgery,’ all they’re thinking is: ‘Oh my gosh. I need to have surgery,'” says Dr. Bledsoe. “The other person can remember what I say and understand differently what I’m explaining. And I know it’s a cliché, but there really is no such thing as a dumb question.”

Dr. Bledsoe says it is a good idea to write down the questions you want to ask and the answers provided by the surgeon. Some helpful questions include:

  • Exactly what are you going to do?
  • What kind of care will I will need after surgery?
  • How long will I need pain medications?
  • How long will I be out of work?
  • What kind of restrictions will I be under and for how long?

One of the questions Leah asked was how many of these procedures Dr. Bledsoe had performed. “He said he had done two that morning,” Dr. Calvin says. “I knew I was in good hands.”

Dr. Bledsoe performed an anterior cervical diskectomy, removing two damaged discs from Dr. Calvin’s neck, inserting a bone plug and fusing the spine — all through the front of the neck. When Dr. Calvin awoke after surgery, the pain in his arm was gone.

Gaining new insight

Dr. Calvin says he realizes he waited too long to be seen about his neck and arm pain. Dr. Bledsoe says it can be hard for people to know when to come in.

“General neck and back pain is a common problem,” Dr. Bledsoe says. “You typically treat it with ice, heat and rest. When you get pain, numbness or weakness down the arm or leg, you definitely need to see your primary care provider right away.”

Along with gaining new insight into the experience of a patient, Dr. Calvin says he has a new appreciation for the colleagues who cared for him.

“The personal touch and assurance were even more important than the technology,” Dr. Calvin says. “The team was great. I would send a family member or any of my patients to them in a heartbeat.”

Note: A version of this story previously was published in Hometown Health.


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Tue, Feb 5 11:15am · Life-Threatening Infection Leads to Lifesaving Heart Surgery

Alex Zabaski became seriously ill when an infection destroyed one of his heart valves. But emergency heart surgery at Mayo Clinic eliminated the danger and restored Alex's heart health.

Alex Zabaski became seriously ill when an infection destroyed one of his heart valves. But emergency heart surgery at Mayo Clinic eliminated the danger and restored Alex’s heart health.


In March 2017, Alex Zabaski of Phoenix welcomed the chance to see friends in Chicago — a city he’d never visited before. During his stay, the 25-year-old was eager to take in some of the iconic sights that define the Windy City. While his friends were at work, Alex struck out on a walk by himself.

“I walked to the beach, and I made it to Wrigley Field, where there happened to be Cubs game,” Alex recalls. Because he was so taken with the excitement and spirit of the crowds near the stadium, he was unaware of how long he had been walking. “I was totally surprised that I had walked 17 miles,” he says.

Alex also was unaware of a blister that was forming on his foot — a seemingly minor annoyance that he ignored. But that blister ended up leading to an infection that attacked the pulmonary valve of his heart. The valve already was compromised as a result of a heart condition he’d had since birth. “The infection pretty much ate my pulmonary valve,” he says.

That innocent walk along Lake Michigan launched a medical odyssey for Alex, and significant health issues escalated to the point that he nearly died. But in July 2017, surgeons at Mayo Clinic performed emergency heart surgery on Alex, and the nine-hour procedure saved his life.

Facing problems early on

Alex was born with a congenital heart defect known as transposition of the great arteries. In this rare heart condition, the two main arteries leaving the heart are reversed. In Alex’s case, his aorta was connected to his heart’s right ventricle, and the pulmonary artery was connected to the left ventricle — the opposite of the heart’s normal anatomy.

The condition leads to decreased oxygen in the blood that’s pumped from the heart to the rest of the body, says Francois Marcotte, M.D., a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus. “These babies require surgery, usually in their first week of life.” He adds that the term “blue baby” is used to describe newborns that have this condition because inadequate blood oxygen makes their skin appear blue. “They are quite sick,” he says.

Such was the case for Alex. “In general, the condition is not compatible with life because the blood is not being oxygenated,” says Octavio Pajaro, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic cardiovascular surgeon. A further complication was that, when he was born, Alex also had a ventricular septal defect — a hole between the heart’s two lower chambers.

Dealing with dangerous circumstances

Despite the serious nature of his heart condition, after he received treatment, Alex was fine for years. That is until he took his long walk in Chicago. After he returned to Arizona from Illinois, Alex developed a fever that he thought was the flu. He went to an urgent care center, where the medical team thought he might be dehydrated. “They told me to just go home and drink a Gatorade,” Alex says.

That night, as his symptoms got worse, Alex drove himself to a Phoenix hospital at 3 a.m. He was admitted and underwent a series of tests.

“I just kept getting worse and worse,” he says. “One after another, my organs were failing. I began hallucinating. I thought there were rats in the ceiling, and that the nurses were trying to kill me. It was hard on the doctors and nurses, too. I was close to dead at that point.”

At that point, Alex’s parents intervened, insisting he be brought to Mayo Clinic Hospital in Arizona. They arrived at 7 p.m. on July 3, 2017. Alex gets emotional recalling the events of that night, especially when he remembers hearing that he was nearly missing a heart valve and needed immediate surgery.


“What struck me was the distress in Alex’s eyes and the pain he was in. I was worried for his life.”

Francois Marcotte, M.D.

Dr. Marcotte met Alex for the first time that night and quickly realized Alex was in an extremely precarious situation. “What struck me was the distress in Alex’s eyes and the pain he was in,” Dr. Marcotte says. “I was worried for his life.”

The physician’s concern was warranted. Alex’s liver and kidneys were beginning to fail because his body couldn’t push the blood out of his right ventricle into the pulmonary arteries. Drs. Marcotte and Pajaro agreed that surgery was necessary to save Alex’s life.

“When we met Alex, he had very little blood flow going through his body. What we call cardiogenic shock,” Dr. Pajaro says. “Alex’s liver was hurt. His kidneys were hurt. We got him stabilized, but surgery was the best solution.”

Dr. Marcotte had the difficult job of telling Alex’s family that the situation was grave, and it was possible he might not make it through the night. Because of Alex’s resolve and commitment to health and exercise, however, his family held on to hope that he would be OK.

Moving on with gratitude

On the morning of July 4, 2017, Dr. Pajaro began performing the delicate surgery on Alex’s heart. He started by putting Alex on the heart-lung machine, so his blood could be drained and reoxygenated. It quickly became obvious that Alex’s heart valve had been completely digested by the infection.

“It was a ruptured heart, and he was bleeding into his sternum,” Dr. Pajaro says. Once the bleeding was controlled and circulation was restored, a cadaver valve was used to replace Alex’s damaged pulmonary valve. The surgery had taken more than nine hours, but Alex’s heart valve was again intact. Dr. Pajaro recalls how upbeat he felt after the surgery was complete.

“I was privileged to be the one who got the call,” he says. “It was the Fourth of July, so I remember that at the end of that day, I managed to get home when the fireworks were just starting. And I said, ‘What a great day.'”

Alex was in a coma for several days following his surgery, waking up on July 7. He was healthy enough to leave the hospital a week later. Alex has nothing but gratefulness and praise for those who cared for him at Mayo Clinic, especially Dr. Pajaro, Dr. Marcotte and everyone from the Infectious Diseases team.


“I’m pretty much fully cleared to go back to whatever I want to do now, which is awesome.”

Alex Zabaski

“I wouldn’t know what to say if they were here with me right now,” he says. “How do you express gratitude to these people for saving my life?”

The lifesaving surgery has allowed Alex to return to a full life. He has a job, enjoys a social life and is back at the gym, doing weightlifting and cardio training.

“I’m pretty much fully cleared to go back to whatever I want to do now, which is awesome,” he says. “Most people, when they look at me, have no idea.”

Alex also takes time to talk with others who are in situations similar to his own. “I work with families who have kids who are going through what I did in my early 20s,” he says. “I share my story and give them hope.”

But for all the activities he enjoys now, there is one thing Alex has taken off his to-do list: “I’m not planning to go for another 17-mile walk in Chicago.”

Learn more about Alex’s story in this video:


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Fri, Feb 1 8:45am · Sports Medicine Propels Ray Yeary to New Heights

When it comes to outdoor pursuits, Ray Yeary is more than a weekend warrior. A lifelong backpacker and adventure sports enthusiast, Ray has been able to take on increasingly more strenuous activities thanks to the comprehensive care he's received at Mayo's Sports Medicine Clinic.

When it comes to outdoor pursuits, Ray Yeary is more than a weekend warrior. A lifelong backpacker and adventure sports enthusiast, Ray has been able to take on increasingly more strenuous activities thanks to the comprehensive care he’s received at Mayo’s Sports Medicine Clinic.


Hiking and being outdoors are passions for Ray Yeary. He loves pushing his body and taking on new physical challenges. But that level of activity over many years can take a toll. For Ray, it resulted in chronic pain in his left knee, which made going down a mountain especially difficult.

But Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine has helped Ray keep pursuing his passions. Just three months after regenerative therapy to heal an inflamed tendon in his left knee, Ray was able to strike out on his biggest sporting adventure to date: ice climbing in the Italian Alps. Based out of a ski resort in France, Ray camped for a week and climbed to 12,000 feet, doing multi-pitch ice climbs.

“It’s awesome to climb up above the clouds. I was climbing straight up these cliffs and putting all my weight on my knees,” says Ray. “My knee is way better than it was before. The pain is gone.”

Navigating a difficult journey

Ray has been tackling tough physical challenges for a long time. Fifteen years ago, the information technology executive and his son set a goal of hiking the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine.

“Hiking offered an opportunity to clear my mind from my high-pressure desk job,” Ray says. “We started out doing 150 miles a year, and it turned into much more than just a bonding experience. This became a huge goal that really changed the way I live my life, especially my nutrition and exercise habits.”


“[Dr. Maynard] helped me get my diet right and develop an exercise regimen that would allow me to push my body to the higher limits that are necessary to complete the Appalachian Trail.”

Ray Yeary

That goal and Ray’s desire to have optimal physical fitness to achieve it brought him to Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus five years ago to see family and sports medicine physician Jennifer Maynard, M.D. Dr. Maynard is one of a team of physicians that are part of the Sports Medicine Clinic.

“She helped me get my diet right and develop an exercise regimen that would allow me to push my body to the higher limits that are necessary to complete the Appalachian Trail,” Ray says. “But the trail really takes its toll on the body. I have chronic tendon issues.”

In 2017, Ray was 165 miles from the end of the trail in Maine when he slid and hyperextended his legs. He had to hike 18 miles to the nearest town after the injury. A subsequent consult with Dr. Maynard and an MRI revealed Ray has torn his right quad tendon, and it required surgery. Ray not only faced the possibility of not being able to complete the milestone he’d pursued for 15 years, his ability to continue hiking and engage in adventure sports was in jeopardy.

Ray was referred to Mayo Clinic orthopedic surgeon Matthew Crowe, M.D., another member of the Sports Medicine Clinic team, who scheduled the surgery for October 2017.

The procedure involved drilling holes thorough the kneecap to suture the tendon to the patella. Dr. Crowe also removed a bone spur caused by the inflammation of the tendon. Ray spent eight weeks in a brace before beginning a strict rehabilitation protocol that involved cautious restrengthening of his quadriceps, with a goal of being able to hike again six months after surgery.

Achieving a major milestone

At the six-month mark, Ray hiked in the Adirondacks. In September 2018, he reached the top of Mt. Katahdin at the end of the Appalachian Trail.

“I felt like I was going to cry when I got to the top,” Ray says. “I started to get all these ideas of what I was going to do next. I needed something to work toward and decided take up ice climbing.”

The only thing that stood in his way was chronic pain in his left knee. Prior to the quad tendon repair surgery, Ray had relied heavily on his right leg to get him through the toughest parts of hikes. But with that knee still healing, he’d been putting a lot of pressure on his left knee, and the pain was persistent. Knowing he wanted to go ice climbing in the Alps, Ray went to see James Presley, M.D., another Mayo Sports Medicine specialist.

Prepping for greater adventure

“We did an MRI and an ultrasound, which revealed there was a large calcium deposit in the distal tendon at the insertion of the kneecap,” Dr. Presley says. “I could see the areas of the tendon that were most irritated and causing the pain.”

Dr. Presley put Ray on an exercise program to build strength and encourage the tendon to heal on its own. He and Ray also discussed doing a procedure known as needle tenotomy, followed by a platelet-rich plasma injection, if the exercises didn’t get rid of Ray’s pain. Performed with a local anesthetic, the procedure involves using a needle to create channels through the abnormal areas of the tendon and then injecting platelet-rich plasma through those channels to work on the tissues.

“Platelets are filled with growth factors, and when they’re released in an area of injury, they increase the body’s ability to heal,” Dr. Presley says.

After several months of being on the exercise routine, Ray’s pain persisted. He wanted to move forward with the regenerative procedure, but the timing had to be right.

Dr. Presley, Dr. Maynard and Dr. Crowe worked together to develop a timeline that would enable Ray to go ice climbing.

“We had to plan the timing between Dr. Crowe’s post-surgery rehab protocol for Ray’s right knee to give that knee enough time to heal in advance of the procedure on the left knee, which would require a minimum of eight weeks, and ideally 12 weeks, to rehab,” Dr. Presley says.

Exploring new horizons

Ray underwent the regenerative therapy procedure in September 2018 after he returned from completing the Appalachian Trail. For the first two weeks afterward, he couldn’t put full weight on his left knee, and he needed to use crutches. He then began a rehabilitation program that involved a series of exercises to gradually increase the tendon’s strength. At a follow-up appointment three weeks before his trip to France, Dr. Presley told Ray his knee was healed and strong enough for the trip.

“He did a very good job of listening to his body and gradually increasing things,” Dr. Presley says. “He followed his rehab protocol perfectly, and that worked beautifully for him.”


“The doctors all have a sports mindset. It feels like they’re on my side and want to keep me going.”

Ray Yeary

“When I got back from the Alps, my left knee felt better than it had in years,” says Ray, who’s now preparing for a trip to climb Mt. Rainier in June and another to Ecuador in November for a volcano climb.

“If I want to keep doing these sports at a high level, I have to really take care of my body. It feels like I have a team at Mayo Clinic’s Sports Medicine Clinic, starting with Dr. Maynard. She managed my overall health and is now working with me on altitude preparation,” Ray says. “Her relationship with the other doctors in the program and how they all communicate is wonderful. The doctors all have a sports mindset. It feels like they’re on my side and want to keep me going.”


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