One of Peg Seaman’s most joyous celebrations took place inside a patient room at Cleveland Clinic.
In November 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic remained in full force, Peg’s husband, three children and loved ones couldn’t visit her in the hospital. Two years later, as she reflects on that Thanksgiving, the 68-year-old elementary school librarian still considers it one of her favorite holiday moments.
“It wasn’t a fancy Thanksgiving. I had a turkey sandwich, with just turkey! No fixings,” says Peg, who three days earlier had undergone a complex, lifesaving heart operation. “But that was the best Thanksgiving I could have hoped for, because I was a new person.”
Peg’s surgery brought to close a lengthy, emotional and physical journey, one that led her to Cleveland Clinic after physicians near her home in Maryland had been unable to accurately diagnose and treat her condition.
In 2011, Peg underwent surgery to place a stent in a coronary artery. Two hours after the procedure, she experienced a massive heart attack and was unconscious for more than seven minutes until a nurse, performing CPR, revived her.
While her health was stable in the ensuing years, Peg eventually began experiencing shortness of breath. Seeing nothing amiss with her heart, her cardiologist suspected a hernia and suggested she see a gastroenterologist. Tests failed to reveal the cause of her discomfort. Meanwhile, her condition steadily worsened.
Peg underwent a multi-faceted heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic to treat her heart conditions. (Courtesy: Peg Seaman)
“I couldn’t walk the 75 feet from the parking lot to the school where I work without putting everything down and holding onto something,” recalls Peg, who in healthier times had enjoyed walking and gardening, accompanied by her two Labrador retrievers. “I couldn’t even walk across my kitchen without resting.”
Finally, one of the doctors ordered a heart catheterization, which revealed Peg had coronary artery disease (CAD), a condition that limits blood flow to the heart due to narrowed arteries. Open-heart surgery was recommended, but at the urging of her family, who had been conducting research online, Peg chose to move her care to Cleveland Clinic.
Within days of having Peg’s records, cardiothoracic surgeon Faisal Bakaeen, MD, reviewed them, met with Peg and scheduled her for open-heart bypass surgery, to occur the Friday before Thanksgiving 2021. However, during a series of preoperative examinations, cardiologist Tamana Singh, MD, detected a heart murmur no one had discovered before.
As Dr. Bakaeen explains, the murmur revealed a further complication for Peg – a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a disease that causes the heart muscle to enlarge. “The HCM diagnosis was critical, because without it, just fixing her coronary artery disease with bypasses wouldn’t have adequately treated her. She would have had a rocky postoperative course and she would have retained most of her symptoms.”
The revised plan for the multi-faceted operation was for cardiothoracic surgeon Nicholas Smedira, MD, to first perform a septal myectomy, a common treatment for HCM in which surgeons remove a portion of thickened heart tissue to improve blood flow to the heart. Then, Dr. Bakaeen would perform the quadruple heart bypass.
That weekend, all of Peg’s family arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, even her two dogs. Their presence brought Peg great comfort as she waited, a feeling that was further enhanced early Monday morning. As Peg recalls, before doctors administered anesthesia in the operating room, Dr. Smedira walked up to her for their first meeting.
Peg's students wrote thank you messages to Dr. Bakaeen. (Courtesy: Peg Seaman)
“He touched me on the shoulder, briefly explained what he would do and asked if I had any questions for him. He was so kind, caring and reassuring. One of the medical students in the operating room then came over and said, ‘You’re in good hands.’”
The surgery was a success, and Peg was overjoyed. A few days later she was discharged. A few weeks later she began undergoing cardiac rehabilitation treatment at a hospital near her home.
Not before long, she was ready to return to her duties at St. John the Evangelist School. Students greeted Peg with a large banner, flowers and countless cards celebrating her return. They had something special for Dr. Bakaeen, too.
Soon after Peg’s surgery, he received a large poster, signed by dozens of Peg’s students, filled with messages that read, “Thank you for saving my teacher’s life!” Dr. Bakaeen was deeply moved by the gesture.
“It melted my heart. It was so touching,” he says. “Obviously, she is loved and appreciated by her students, and for them to hand write messages was so special to me. It’s one of the most rewarding moments in my career.”
Peg thinks often about the team that saved her life. “I was truly blessed to be with the doctors and the entire cardiac surgery team. They saved my life.”
Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute (Miller Family)