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Patient delivers sweet hearts to heart surgeon

Written By: Andi Atkinson, UT Physicians | Updated: February 21, 2022
Mrs. Schmidt & Dr. Abreu

Former heart patient Ruth Schmidt reunites with surgeon Juan A. Abreu, MD, on Feb. 15.

On Feb. 15, 2022, a heart patient reunited with the UT Physicians surgeon who acted quickly to repair her damaged heart just one year ago. 

Ruth Schmidt of Katy, Texas, personally thanked Juan A. Abreu, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at UT Physicians Cardiothoracic & Vascular Surgery – Memorial City, for her life-saving operation. In appreciation, she delivered a dozen heart-shaped cookies to the doctor and staff for American Heart Month.

The retired teacher shared her story, which began in January 2021 with a routine visit to her oncologist. Schmidt, a breast cancer survivor, told her doctor about the bothersome pressure she was feeling in her chest. Because her aches felt heavy rather than sharp, the 74-year-old never suspected she had coronary artery disease.

“I walk 40 minutes a day, religiously, and I’ve walked ever since I was 45. The longer I walked, the less my chest would hurt, so I figured it couldn’t possibly be a heart problem,” Schmidt said. “When I described my symptoms to my doctor, he said, ‘That’s angina. You need to see a cardiologist.’”

Wasting no time, Schmidt went to see an interventional cardiologist on Jan. 29, 2021. Little did she know she would not go straight home after her office visit.

She took a cardiac stress test that Friday morning, which required her to run for 10 minutes. About 30 seconds before the test was supposed to end, a staff member asked her about the pain she felt.   

“I said, ‘If I were walking I would probably stop, but I can handle anything for another 30 seconds,’” Schmidt said. “The next thing I knew, the doctor was waking me up. I was on the floor. I had passed out.”

Seeing the severity of her case, the interventional cardiologist immediately moved her to Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center. He initially tried to insert stents into her heart, but the procedure was unsuccessful due to extensive blockage and a bad aortic valve.

That is when Abreu, assistant professor of cardiothoracic and vascular surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, was asked to help.

“Dr. Abreu was on call, and he came to my hospital room and asked to stay in the ICU for the weekend so he could get everything set up for Monday morning,” Schmidt said. “He explained the entire procedure to me. He was so kind and sincere. He just put a calming effect on me. On Monday morning at 8 a.m., I went into surgery.”

Immediately after her operation, this wife, mother, and grandmother was already feeling better.

“I just had surgery, and I felt wonderful,” she said. “I really thought I was going to go home right away and wash laundry. I felt that good.”

After a week, Abreu allowed Schmidt to go home on the condition that she enter a rehabilitation facility or arrange for a nurse and physical therapist to regularly visit her home. She chose the latter, and the 74-year-old was released three weeks later. 

The surgery immediately improved how she felt, but Schmidt still needed to ease back into her active lifestyle and strengthen her heart. She used a walker for three weeks, and each day she would go outside and cross one more driveway than the day before. Then she attended a 12-week cardiovascular rehabilitation program where she exercised in a monitored setting for one hour a day, two days a week.

Though she survived cancer twice, Schmidt was more unsettled over her heart condition and worked hard to improve it.

“I always thought, ‘I’m going to beat cancer. I’m going to mow my yard just to prove I can still do it,’” she said. “With my heart, though, it was actually more scary. You can’t get rid of your heart. You have to protect it.”

A year later at age 75, Schmidt is once again “on the go all the time,” but she remembers to slow down enough to fully appreciate life.  

“I just thank God I wake up in the morning. He’s had a lot of chances to take me,” she jokingly said.

Schmidt first thanked Abreu through email on Feb. 1, the anniversary of her surgery. Then she decided to deliver some homemade “sweet hearts” to him and the cardiology staff on Feb. 15 for American Heart Month.

“I just wanted him to know how much I appreciated everything he did for me and my family,” she said.

The surgeon was pleasantly surprised by her visit.  

“We don’t usually hear back from our patients. In our work, if we don’t hear from them it means they’re doing well,” Abreu said. “It was very nice Mrs. Schmidt remembered us and stopped by. It was so wonderful to catch up with her and hear how well she’s been doing. She was lovely as always.”

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.