Lifesaving trip to the ER: Shortness of breath leads to open-heart surgery. Read Susan's Story

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Susan Rompot

A trip to a UnityPoint Health Emergency Room (ER) most likely saved Susan Rompot’s life. The 59 year-old Cedar Rapids woman awoke early one morning after experiencing shortness of breath.


“I told my husband Roger, I needed to go to the ER,” recalled Rompot. “I couldn’t catch my breath. It was scary.”

A full battery of tests didn’t initially point to a heart attack but her blood pressure was dangerously high. Doctors kept her in the ER until the afternoon repeating several tests. All tests for heart issues came back negative but doctors did identify an undiagnosed kidney issue, which needed immediate attention. Rompot was released with a follow-up appointment to see a cardiologist and a nephrologist (kidney doctor).

“Multiple issues made me think she might have heart blockages,” said Georges Hajj, MD, UnityPoint Clinic Cardiology cardiologist. “She had shortness of breath, very high blood pressure in the ER, she is a diabetic and she has a strong family history of heart disease.”

Dr. Hajj ordered Rompot to undergo a nuclear stress test to help identify and diagnose any heart issues.

Open-heart surgery

“I didn’t pass the stress test and because of that Dr. Hajj then wanted me to have a heart catheterization,” said Rompot. “I thought he would find a blockage, put a stent in and be done. I wasn’t anticipating what would come next.”

“Susan had severe blockages in three areas of her heart,” said Dr. Hajj. “With these multiple blockages combined with her diabetes, I told her the best treatment would be triple bypass surgery. It would give her the best long-term results in preventing a future heart attack.”

“It was shocking news,” said Rompot. “I was not expecting to need open-heart surgery. But after talking with Dr. Hajj and my family – we knew it was the best decision.”
Rompot scheduled surgery for July 22, two months after that initial visit to the ER.

“Susan was a good candidate for open-heart surgery,” said James Levett, MD, Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa, PC, cardiothoracic surgeon. “Her heart did not have any damage and we were able to place the three grafts with no issues. “

Nearly 40 years of open-heart surgery

Surgeons have been performing open-heart surgery at St. Luke’s for nearly 40 years. The open-heart surgery team has many tenured nurses and surgeons. Dr. Levett is one of only five cardiothoracic surgeons ever to operate as part of the St. Luke’s open-heart surgery team and one St. Luke’s Operating Room (OR) nurse has been with the program since its start in 1978. Nationally the program has been honored six times as a top heart hospital.

“We have a dedicated team with experienced surgeons and nurses,” said Dr. Levett. “Our program has performed over 13,000 open-heart surgeries, which is distinctly different from a cardiac cath procedure. Some people may think they are similar but they are vastly different. In open-heart surgery, surgeons typically open the chest to gain access to the heart and then make incisions in other parts of the body, usually the legs or arms to obtain healthy vessels, which are used to bypass blockages.

The long-term results of open-heart surgery for some individuals, especially patients with diabetes or patients with more than two blockages, are much better and they will be less likely to need additional surgery or procedures years later.”

Another important factor that sets St. Luke’s heart program apart from others is its use of more radial artery grafts. 

“We believe they last longer than vein grafts,” said Dr. Levett. “We try to do what is best for our patients always and we believe these arteries will stay open longer with radial grafts rather than using vein grafts.”

After surgery, Rompot participated in St. Luke’s Cardiac Rehabilitation program, which combined exercise with information on healthy eating. “Cardiac rehab was my safe zone,” said Rompot. “It was such a great experience. They were all so caring and worked side-by-side with me to get me back on the right track. They pushed me just enough to do a little more but in a safe and controlled environment. It was hard to ‘graduate’ from this wonderful group of people.”

It was within this safety net where Rompot gained the confidence she needed to hit the gym on her own.

New outlook

“I joined a gym and exercise every day,” said Rompot. “I noticed a big difference right away in my breathing especially – it wasn’t as labored as it had been. Overall I am in a much better place today. I look back at how I was feeling and it was easy to blame my overall health on the busyness of life. Now I know better.”

Rompot has not only incorporated exercise but her diet is much improved and she has lost over 40 pounds. She’s seeing a doctor for her kidney issues and overall is much healthier and happier.
“I feel I received such great care from all of my doctors at UnityPoint Health,” said Rompot. “They all work together and are able to identify my medical needs,” said Rompot. “They turned something that could be viewed as negative into a positive experience. To me, having heart surgery gave me a second chance at life and for that I am grateful. I feel very blessed to have a great team of doctors. I am glad I went to the ER that day because it’s hard to imagine what might have happened if I hadn’t.”

Take control of your heart health today and visit unitypoint.org/heart to sign up for a heart screening at a UnityPoint Health hospital near you.

Photo caption:
Susan Rompot has embraced a healthy lifestyle and exercises daily at the Rockwell Collins Recreation Center.