A second chance at life

A second chance at life

A freak infection caused nightmarish cardiac problems until Providence Little Company of Mary surgeons intervened.
Written by Robin Heffler   |   Photographed by Shane O’Donnell

A freak infection caused nightmarish cardiac problems until Providence Little Company of Mary surgeons intervened.

A carpenter by profession, Chris Castellano, 46, was finishing a kitchen remodel in his Redondo Beach condominium last summer when he began to feel ill.

“I thought maybe I was getting a cold,” he says. “I had no energy and was having a hard time walking, with my legs lacking coordination. At night I was taking Alka Seltzer Plus so I could sleep.” He later learned his condition was much more serious and needed immediate attention.

Castellano’s wife, Linda, was away on a business trip for a few days but when she returned and saw his weakened condition she called 911. The ambulance took him to Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center Torrance, the closest hospital, and it turned out to be the one best prepared to treat his condition.

After testing, it was determined a recent root canal had resulted in an infection.

This infection, which had entered his blood stream, most likely led to several strokes, two minor heart attacks, and severely damaged the mitral valve in his heart.

Murrad Abdelkarim, MD, an interventional cardiologist at the hospital, performed several of the diagnostic procedures which determined the extent of the damage.

“First was an echocardiogram, which showed an infection of his heart valve,” says Dr. Abdelkarim, who noted that Castellano was having trouble speaking when he arrived. “That was followed by a transesophageal echocardiogram, in which a camera is placed down the food pipe. It showed extensive damage causing the valve to leak, which can lead to heart failure and permanent heart damage. As part of the workup we also did a heart catheterization which looks at internal pressure on the heart and arteries that send blood to the heart muscle.”

Afterward, Dr. Abdelkarim, together with Jonathan C. Cash, MD, one of the area’s leading cardiovascular surgeons and an assistant professor of surgery at Keck Medicine of USC, gave their recommendations about the best course of treatment.

“They strongly advised that I get the valve replaced right away,” Castellano says. “I was very surprised because I’ve led a fairly active and healthy life. Besides carpentry, I enjoy woodworking, walking, hiking, and golf, which I used to play professionally in the minor leagues.”

Five days after entering the hospital, Dr. Cash performed open-heart surgery to replace Castellano’s mitral valve.

By having the surgery at Little Company of Mary, Castellano was able to get excellent care at a hospital close to home, one with cardiovascular expertise that has expanded since a partnership with Keck Medicine of USC began last year. This partnership allows the highly trained cardiologists and surgeons to offer the South Bay community the highest level of expert care and the latest in academic research. 

“All care has been improved by the involvement and expertise of Keck Medicine of USC because we now have a full scope of practice and capabilities,” says Dr. Abdelkarim. “We are able to care for patients at all levels of the disease process.”

To illustrate the breadth of care available, he points to many minimally invasive procedures, such as Transcatheter Valve Replacement (TAVR) and other heart procedures, as well as open-heart surgery, which was necessary for Castellano. And because of the partnership with Keck Medicine of USC, patients can receive the latest in surgical care without having to leave the South Bay.

Castellano’s hospital stay lasted a week, and he was very thankful for the medical care he received. “It made me appreciate how much doctors and nurses work,” he says. “They were very attentive, and I had very good care. I owe my life to the two doctors and the teams at Providence Little Company of Mary Torrance.”

Following discharge, Castellano went to rehab to help him get on track toward a normal life again, including navigating the many steps at his condominium building. He chose a rehab center in Long Beach, which enabled his parents, who live in Orange County, to visit every day.

After three weeks in rehab, Castellano went to his mother-in-law’s single-floor home in Santa Ana before finally returning to his own home at the end of September. Then it was off to cardiac rehab five times a week for six weeks at Little Company of Mary.

“They monitor you as you exercise on the treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical, while stretching and using light weights,” Castellano says. “That was cool, and everyone there was awesome. The cardiac rehab team were very attentive, telling me to slow down sometimes, letting me see how it felt when working out at a peak level, or any level, as a way to test what I could and couldn’t do. I went every day. It helped me to regain strength, after being weak from being in the hospital and the rehab center and losing 20 pounds.”

It also helped him prepare for a month-long vacation in Southeast Asia that had been arranged before he got ill. The trip involved a lot of walking through city streets, ruins, and temples in Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia. “If I hadn’t pushed myself and my wife hadn’t pushed me to go every day to cardiac rehab, it would not have been as active a vacation,” he says.

It took expert hospital care, compassionate rehab services and a determined will for Chris Castellano to return the activities he loves.He also credits his wife and his previous work as a professional golfer for helping him cope with his illness and the long road to recovery.

“Golfing is a kick in the teeth every day,” Castellano says. “Now I feel great, work out every day, and my strength is coming back. The weights at the gym and yoga help to strengthen my core. As for endurance, I’m at 95%, and I get tired when I work out.” He is also mindful of his doctors’ warnings that because of the blood thinners he takes, he needs to be aware of the risk of bleeding if he sustains any head injuries or cuts.

Overall, though, he feels close to resuming his life as it was before heart disease and is about to test his stamina.

“I’m going to help a friend, a contractor, to put in finished carpentry for one of his clients,” Castellano explains. “I want to see how my body will react before looking to get hired somewhere again. My work is so physical, loading and unloading tools, and the work itself is so demanding. I know I can do the work. It’s a matter of having the strength and endurance. I feel like I’m on­ my way.” 

For more information on cardiac surgery services at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Centers San Pedro and Torrance, call 844-925-0942.

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