The night before she was to undergo major heart surgery – which several other doctors had told her she wouldn’t survive – Mary Louise Mulcahy was admittedly worried. So, she shared her fears with the surgeon who would perform the life-saving operation, Olaf Wendler, MD, PhD, who is Chair of the Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute at Cleveland Clinic London.
“I’ll never forget it,” says Mary, age 55, during a recent interview from her home in County Cork, Ireland. “He said, ‘I don’t mind you being worried. But I’m not.’ After that, I slept quite soundly.”
Six days later, accompanied by her daughter, Claudia, and sister, Valerie, Mary was walking rather briskly through London’s Hyde Park – a bit of exercise that would have been impossible to undertake had Professor Wendler not succeeded in replacing a faulty heart valve and repairing related damage to her aorta.
“I’m back walking, doing exercises, going dancing. I’ve got my social life again,” exudes Mary, who had learned about Cleveland Clinic London and Professor Wendler from a customer – himself a back surgeon – who had patronised the wastewater treatment company she owns.
Mary during treatment for her heart condition at Cleveland Clinic London. (Courtesy: Mary Louise Mulcahy)
Mary, who for several years had suffered from and been treated for various heart ailments, underwent a series of episodes that led to her seeking the aid of Professor Wendler. A previous aortic valve replacement, where at the same time an aneurysm of the ascending aorta was replaced, had resulted in serious complications, including a massive infection that had required partial removal of her breastbone. Over a few years after surgery, the biological valve prosthesis that was placed degenerated and narrowed up, resulting in symptoms of severe shortness of breath for Mary.
When Professor Wendler first examined her in June 2022, he could understand the concern other surgeons had expressed to Mary.
“Because part of her breastbone was missing, a crater had formed across the sternum, and the aortic graft, which was used to replace an aortic aneurysm previously was lying directly below her skin. That’s a problem, because when you open up the chest in that condition, you have a serious risk of damaging the aorta, which can be fatal.”
However, what Professor Wendler couldn’t understand was how often Mary had been told nothing could be done for her.
“As doctors, we need to be honest with our patients,” he states. “But I believe we need to be very cautious of telling patients how long they have to live or that recovery isn’t possible. Sometimes it’s just a question of finding the right surgeon and hospital where a difficult surgery can be performed.”
Mary outside Cleveland Clinic London. (Courtesy: Mary Louise Mulcahy)
Still, Professor Wendler didn’t agree to the operation right away. Mary had some work to do first. Her heart condition – and the risk of the surgery – was compounded by two factors Mary had to address: she would need to lose weight and stop smoking.
And that’s exactly what she did. Although highly motivated to reach those goals, it wasn’t easy for Mary – especially losing weight, since she was too sick to exercise with any rigor. However, by improving her diet and kicking her longtime smoking habit, Mary reached those goals after several months and was ready for surgery. During this time, she was actively supported and her cardiac condition was monitored by the surgical team.
The 10-hour operation went smoothly. Professor Wendler was able to implant a heart valve two sizes up from the first operation, and pleasantly surprised that despite the problem with Mary’s breastbone, “it came together quite nicely when I closed the chest” to complete the operation. “We had no problems at all.”
Mary praises Professor Wendler and the staff of Cleveland Clinic London and not just for their medical skills.
“Everyone was so kind and respectful,” says Mary. “And Professor Wendler explained everything to me in plain English, with kindness. He talked to me. He never once talked down to me. That made quite a difference for me.”
Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute (Miller Family)