Saint Joe's aggressive screening catches aneurysms early
BY MARILYN OLSON For Sun-Times Media
Dr. J. Michael Tuchek looks at the image of the heart on which he will operate to determine if the patient will need a new valve. | CAROL DORSETT ~ FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Dr. Michael Tuchek, Director of the Cardiovascular Surgery Program at Provena Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, once wondered why he was seeing so many patients with aneurysms (bulging points on an artery that, if ruptured, usually kill).
“I wondered why we seemed to have a huge aneurysm population at Saint Joe’s,” Tuchek said. “Was it something in the environment? Family history?
“It turns out it was really because we have an effective screening program at Saint Joe’s, and that was discovering these problems so they could be fixed before they became lethal!”
An undiscovered dissecting aneurysm killed actor John Ritter in 2003, and other famous people such as Einstein, Lucille Ball and George C. Scott died from ruptured aneurysms.
Dr. Tuchek and the hospital developed a program to provide area residents with screenings to detect these aneurysms.
Dare to Care
During the medical center’s quarterly “Dare to Care,” these screenings are provided free of charge for anyone who registers, and now Medicare covers AAA screenings as part of its “Welcome to Medicare” physical.
“We’ve made the decision to do the right thing,” Tuchek said. “The hospital and staff, as well as physicians, are committed to providing this vital service to the community.
“Everyone volunteers for the Dare to Care programs. We don’t find many aneurysms, or bad heart valves, but if we save one person, even at a high cost, it is worth it.”
Patients don’t know they have these conditions, but Tuchek said with education they are generally willing to come in for screenings. Detecting even a small percentage of people with an aneurysm – so it can be repaired non-invasively with stents or traditional surgery before doing any harm – is the goal of offering the screenings.
Tuchek is a member of Cardiac Surgery Associates, the largest group of cardiac surgeons in the United States.
“With 28 surgeons in the group, working in 25 hospitals in three states – Iowa, Illinois and Indiana – we do 25 percent of all the open heart surgeries in Illinois,” Tuchek said. “Locally, I found that half of all aneurysm surgery I do is at Provena Saint Joseph Medical Center. That is because Saint Joe’s has a highly effective screening program.
“It also creates a waterfall effect,” he said. “Someone is tested, tells a friend, relative or neighbor, and they come in for screening. As a result, I am the recipient of a huge aneurysm ‘population,’ people who may have died without treatment. We go out and try to save one person at a time. Only a small percent of those we screen have the condition, but it is worth it to save lives.”
There are continued benefits from the screening program as well.
“Even if we don’t find any issues, the program gets people focused on living healthier lifestyles,” Tuchek said. “They become aware of health screenings, healthy choices, and the excellent care available to them in their community. Their health improves.”
Tuchek pointed out that smoking is a major factor in aneurysms, as well as lung cancer and heart disease. Educating people to these risk factors saves lives.
Tuchek also brings his talents to treat disadvantaged people in South America.
“I don’t have a golf game,” he laughs. “But I love what I do and enjoy seeing it help people. So for the last five or six years, I have gone to teach and volunteer in Santiago, Chile, at a veteran’s hospital there. I take a team down to do surgery and research.
“The hospital we go to is for the police and their families, and most do not have the resources to afford heart surgery. We go every three to six months, usually in the winter here, and operate non-stop for several days. We don’t even get a hotel room, but rather sleep in the hallways, like a ‘M.A.S.H’ unit on TV.”
Tuchek remembered operating on a young man from Peru, about 25 years old, who picked grapes.
“He was a husband and had a small child,” Tuchek said. “He would have died of an aneurysm without
Tuchek also offers his services free to people from third-world countries that are brought to this area for treatment.
“These patients have special issues that cannot be treated in their home countries,” he said. “We also bring patients from rural areas in Illinois because they cannot obtain treatment closer to home.”
Tuchek participates in numerous clinical trials to bring state-of-the-art medical treatment options to his patients at Saint Joseph Medical Center. He is working on new, less-invasive options to treat patients in need of thoracic stents and with damaged valves in their hearts. In the past, these conditions required major surgery, but with new technology they will soon be treated with tiny wires and catheters threaded to the heart or aneurysm through a small incision in the groin, as blocked arteries in the heart are currently treated in a technique called angioplasty and stenting. Tuchek is the largest enroller of patients in the current clinical trials for thoracic abdominal stent grafts.
“I am one of only 100 physicians in the United States participating in a trial to perform percutaneous aortic valve replacement (using similar catheter and balloon techniques) to replace diseased aortic valves.
“When this procedure is approved by the FDA, it will be available for patients here in the Joliet area at Saint Joseph Medical Center. That means those with bad valves will not have to undergo open heart surgery,” he said.
Tuchek holds a medical degree from the Chicago Osteopathic Medical Center and interned in cardiac surgery at Loyola Medical Center, where he is still on the faculty. Cardiac Surgery Associates has done more than 7,500 open heart surgeries at Saint Joseph Medical Center since their surgeons joined the medical staff there in 1992.
The practice has won numerous awards and honors for its innovative work and quality outcomes including five star ratings from HealthGrades.
“Since Resurrection and Provena merged, we have become the ‘crown jewel’ of their program in heart surgery,” Tuchek said. “I want to bring even more advanced cardiac technologies and clinical research to the community. We want to continue to provide university-level cardiac care, usually only found in large academic medical centers, for the community, right here.”
Tuchek said he is grateful that a hospital such as Saint Joe’s has made the commitment to better health for community residents.
“The hospitals, and especially Provena Saint Joseph Medical Center, have been very gracious. These services are the right thing to do, so we do them,” he said.
“If it is not good enough for my Mom and Dad, it’s just not good enough. That’s how I measure medical care.”
For more information about cardiovascular health care and other medical center services, visit online at www.provena.org/stjoes/.