‘Luckiest guy in the world’: McHenry hospital provides uncommon care during common surgery

Northwestern Medicine receives high quality rating from Society of Thoracic Surgeons

James Smith climbed Mount Bierstadt with his daughter and grandson. He's back to climbing mountains following a three-graft coronary artery bypass at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital.

James Smith never had to get off his bike for feeling a burning sensation on his chest before, but in November 2021 he did.

“That was a big signal,” said the 57-year-old grandfather from Oakwood Hills, who has been an avid hiker and mountain biker for years.

Attributing the minor ache at the time to a chest cold or perhaps lingering symptoms from COVID-19, Smith ignored it and continued to live as usual, never imagining that three months later he would be having open-heart surgery at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital.

“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” Smith said.

The three-graft coronary artery bypass performed by Aqeel Sandhu, director of cardiac surgery at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at the McHenry hospital, was a success, he said.

The surgery itself is very common, said Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, the immediate past president of the American Heart Association and the chair of department of preventative medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

”It usually involves putting the patient on the heart-lung (bypass) machine. So it is significant, but not as technically challenging as most other types of heart surgery. Pretty basic surgery in this day and age,” Lloyd-Jones said.

But only trained heart surgeons can do it.

Heart surgeons are different from cardiologists, who do medical procedures like catheterizations and stents, and non-invasive diagnostic procedures like echocardiograms, Lloyd-Jones said.

What made Smith procedure special, he said, was the level of care he received.

“From checkup to rehabilitation; it was quite a crew,” he said, noting that he’s back to doing what he loves, like climbing a 14,000-foot peak at a Colorado trail with his daughter and grandson.

That level of service and results are some of the reasons why Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital recently received a three-star rating from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

Headquartered in Chicago, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons is the nonprofit that represents nearly 8,000 cardiothoracic surgeons, researchers and healthcare professionals worldwide.

The three-star rating given to hospitals indicates the highest category of quality of health care and it places the McHenry hospital among the elite for heart bypass surgery in the United States and Canada, according to Society of Thoracic Surgeons officials.

The reporting the Society of Thoracic Surgeons provides, helps patients with meaningful information to help them make informed decisions about their health care, David M. Shahian, chair of the STS task force on quality measurement, said in a written statement.

Since April 2020, when Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital expanded its cardiovascular services to include coronary artery bypass grafting procedures, more than 300 cardiovascular surgeries have been made, many of which were once only available to patients who traveled to other Northwestern Medicine campuses, officials said.

Sandhu said it’s people like Smith, who have gone out into the community and talked about their experience to family and friends, who have helped the center grow.

For Smith, It was the mere mention of the burning sensation on his chest at the end of his annual physical exam last year that kickstarted his triple bypass.

His physical health checked out fine, but when he was wrapping up his visit, Smith mentioned the feeling to his general doctor at Northwestern Medicine Woodstock Regional Medical Group, and despite not having any more common cardiac symptoms, he was immediately sent for more tests that came back with normal results, he said.

Instructed to get a stress test the following day at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital, a procedure for diagnosing severe heart artery blockages was also performed.

Two days later, he had the surgery he credits for saving his life.

“It all happened so fast,” Smith said. “I was surprised but not scared; it was what it was, and I was in their hands.”

His advice to anyone who will listen now is to “please follow up” with a visit to a doctor whenever there’s something not quite right.

“Your body may give you signs,” Smith said.