Heart of a fighter

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Beating the odds: Edward Hospital cardiac patient Leon Lasota has a long story of survival to tell — scarlet fever, three years in a concentration camp, and most recently, aortic stenosis. | Supplied photo Photos of Leon Lasota are attached.


Q: What is aortic valve stenosis?

A: People who have aortic valve stenosis have a faulty heart valve that does not open and close properly and also may leak blood. When the blood flowing out from the heart is trapped by a poorly working valve, pressure may build up and cause damage to the heart. The most common symptom of an obstructed or leaky aortic valve is shortness of breath with exertion, which usually develops over time.

Q: What is a TAVR (also called TAVI)?

A: This minimally invasive surgical procedure repairs the aortic valve without removing the existing damaged valve. Instead, it wedges a replacement valve into the aortic valve’s place. The surgery may be called a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) or transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI).

Q: How is TAVR or TAVI different from standard valve replacement?

A: This procedure, which is FDA approved for people with symptomatic aortic stenosis and who are considered a high-risk patient for standard valve replacement surgery, generally facilitates a much faster recovery. Usually valve replacement requires an open heart procedure with a sternotomy, which requires the chest to be surgically separated for the procedure.

­ The American Heart Association

When Leon Lasota was 17 years old, German soldiers hauled him out of bed in the middle of the night and carted him off to a concentration camp.

That was the second of many times in his almost-93 years that the Romeoville man has faced death. (The first was when he contracted scarlet fever as a child.)

His most recent scare was last November, when he collapsed at home from aortic stenosis (narrowing of the aortic valve.) He needed surgery, but at his age, the options were slim.

Enter Dr. Bryan Foy, medical director of cardiac surgery at Edward Heart Hospital in Naperville and a thoracic surgeon with Cardiac Surgery Associates. He recommended a procedure called Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR), a lifesaving procedure for patients with no other options. It’s recommended for people with severe aortic stenosis, who because of their age or health cannot have an open heart procedure to replace the valve. Edward was the first hospital in the Chicago suburbs to do the procedure (in June 2012), and it remains one of only a handful of hospitals in Illinois that do TAVR.

Like so many times before, Lasota pulled through with flying colors. Told he would be on a breathing machine for two days, he was off the machine that night. He was asking to go home the next day.

“We wanted him to stay longer because we were remodeling the house for him,” laughed his daughter, Susan Lasota. “But he was very determined.”

A Polish activist in 1939, Leon Lasota was sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp for more than three years after protesting Poland’s takeover by the Ukraine.

“My dad was protesting in the town square, he was standing up and saying, ‘This will never be a part of the Ukraine. This will always be Poland.’ And he was in the paper and all of a sudden he was a threat,” she said. “The Germans and the Ukrainians didn’t like him. They wanted to shut him up and get rid of him.”

To that end, a false rumor was spread by the Germans that he was planning to assassinate Stalin. Then came the midnight rousting, and the trip to Buchenwald.

He lied and said he was skilled, and was sent to work at an armaments factory.

“You have to do what they told you,” Leon Lasota said. “You have to be quiet, because you are not going to change. You stand in line for dinner. Sometimes they give you food, sometimes you get passed.”

Friday night eight people received one loaf of bread to share among them and sustain them until Monday.

After being liberated from Buchenwald, he joined the English Eighth Army. He escaped certain death again when members of the Polish communist regime tried to kidnap him and bring him back to Poland.

He met his wife in England and they were married in 1953, and his son Richard was born there. They later moved to Canada, where daughters Susan and Sylvia followed. In 1965, the family moved to America, the land of opportunity.

“He wanted to give us the best life,” Susan Lasota said. “We came on the train from Canada. We had to sell everything we had. All I was allowed to bring was a teddy bear.”

Leon Lasota is the father of Richard Lasota, Susan Lasota and Sylvia French. He has six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He says he feels great after his surgery, and wants to “be alive” for his family.

“I feel good. I still can walk, talk and do everything,” he said.

“He is blessed and very loved, and we love him and celebrate him, too,” Susan Lasota said. “My dad is my hero.”