Ride of a Lifetime

Heart crisis came out of the blue for California couple

January 2011

In 2006, Marc Van Buskirk received an invitation usually reserved for rock stars and politicians: He was offered a ride in a Blue Angels jet.

The only prerequisite was a complete physical, which, from all appearances, the athletic 49-year-old would pass with, well, flying colors.

He didn’t. Mr. Van Buskirk’s physical revealed that a preexisting heart condition had become much worse. “Instead of a trip to fly with the Blues, I got to sit on a gurney and have my chest opened up,” he says.

Understandably, the prospect of open-heart surgery terrified him, but now, five years later, he and his wife, Shannon, have used their experience as a way to help other cardiac patients. Residents of La Jolla, Calif., they do everything they can to raise awareness among their fellow Californians of Cleveland Clinic and its expertise in cardiovascular surgery. For the Van Buskirks, that expert care was a lifesaver.

They chose Cleveland Clinic because of the high volume of heart surgeries performed there and because it has excellent outcomes, despite taking on the toughest cases. “My kids were 17 and 18 at the time,” Mr. Van Buskirk says. “I wanted to see them grow up.”

VanBuskirk

The Van Buskirk family: Kyle, Shannon, Marc and Trey

Besides, the signs all pointed to Cleveland. The first specialist the Van Buskirks consulted was a longtime La Jolla cardiologist, who recommended that Mr. Van Buskirk have his surgery at Cleveland Clinic. When they sought a second opinion, the next cardiologist not only gave them the same recommendation but told them that he himself had been to Cleveland Clinic twice for mitral valve surgery. “Two out of two doctors said, ‘Go to Cleveland Clinic,’” Mr. Van Buskirk says.

In addition, Cleveland Clinic was able to offer him minimally invasive surgery, which was not available to him locally. The final deciding factor was that renowned cardiac surgeon Delos M. “Toby” Cosgrove, MD, agreed to take his case. Already President and CEO of Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Cosgrove at the time still performed surgeries.

‘The Best Hands’

Mr. Van Buskirk recalls a sense of calm and assurance coming over him when he stepped onto Cleveland Clinic’s campus. And that feeling of confidence endured throughout his hospitalization, from the pre-surgery tests to his after-surgery care. “Everything was done so well. Everything was done on time,” he says. “If I had a question, they would answer all the questions. The attention to detail in intensive care was amazing. I knew I was in the best hands.”

Mrs. Van Buskirk agrees. “La Jolla has fabulous medical services, but Cleveland Clinic specializes in cardiovascular surgery,” she says. “Cleveland Clinic executes beyond expectations. Every doctor, every appointment is so professional. We applaud Dr. Cosgrove [who holds the Rich Family Chief Executive Chair]. He has this huge organization to run and he has it running so well. It works.”

Prior to the physical that led to his surgery, Mr. Van Buskirk knew he had a mitral valve prolapse, “which was not a big deal,” he says. He did not know that his mitral valve was not closing properly and that he had torn cordae tendineae, which are cord-like tendons that connect muscles to the tricuspid valve and the mitral valve.

His heart had enlarged to an extent that he was consistently tired, but he attributed the fatigue to traveling overseas on business 30 weeks out of the year. Ever the athlete, though, he continued his exercise regimen. “I remember running up a hill and thinking, ‘This hill is really tough today,’” he says.

When he arrived at Cleveland Clinic, Mr. Van Buskirk took some comfort in the fact that many of his fellow cardiac patients posed more surgical challenges than he. “I knew that Cleveland Clinic’s difficult cases – people who are smokers, are overweight, are having their second surgery – are all factored into the results,” he says.

‘Think Globally’

Cleveland Clinic’s expertise was at the core of the Van Buskirks’ awareness-raising event, which they co-hosted with another former heart patient in October at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. Mrs. Van Buskirk says they have this message for those who are diagnosed with a serious heart problem: “Get a second opinion at Cleveland Clinic.”

She fervently believes in going to a hospital that specializes in your particular health problem. “People will go on vacation and get on a plane to go anywhere,” she says. “But when it comes to health, they’re frozen. They think they have to work with what’s available locally. They need to think globally.”

The Van Buskirks paved the way for that kind of thinking with their event, which they put on with Roger Joseph of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Mr. Joseph’s surgeon, Marc Gillinov, MD, holder of the Judith Dion Pyle Endowed Chair in Heart Valve Research, spoke to the guests about heart disease myths and prevention. “Dr. Gillinov’s talk was so fun,” Mr. Van Buskirk says. “He connected so well with the audience.”

About 80 people were in attendance, recall the Van Buskirks, who have made new friends as a result of Mr. Van Buskirk’s health crisis. “We’ve met some of the most incredible people,” says Mrs. Van Buskirk. “Everybody who’s thinking of having the surgery wants to call you.”

And Mr. Van Buskirk is more than happy to tell them about his experience. “We want to do as much as we can to give back to Cleveland Clinic,” he says.

Mr. Van Buskirk is president of Pacific Sales Corp, a wholly owned subsidiary of Oakley, which produces goggles, boots and other protective apparel. He travels around the world, selling to military and government employees. In that capacity, he became friends with a number of Blue Angels.

His invitation to fly still stands, but he doubts he’ll go up with them. “They did enough for me,” he says. “Without that physical … Let’s just say I consider all my angels to be blue.”

To make an online gift supporting the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute or any area of Cleveland Clinic, visit our secure giving site or call Institutional Relations and Development at 216.444.1245 or toll-free at 800.223.2273, ext. 41245.

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