Emergency Lung Surgery for Pulmonary Emboli Reveals Heart Defect

For immediate release: April 04, 2014

Kim Broll of Cumberland, Maryland lived 58 years without knowing she had a hole in her heart and that one day it would save her life. In fact, it was not until she woke up from emergency surgery to treat massive clots in the blood vessels supplying her lungs that Keshava Rajagopal, MD, PhD, cardiothoracic surgeon at the University of Maryland Heart and Vascular Center, informed Kim that he had also repaired a heart condition known as patent foramen ovale (PFO). PFO arises when a hole in the upper portion of a fetus’ heart does not close after birth.

Why didn’t Kim know prior to her surgery about her heart condition? Those with PFO who have no other heart problems typically lead a normal life free of symptoms of the condition. PFO is often discovered during an echocardiogram, but the test is usually performed only if a patient presents symptoms of a heart problem.

Kim, a registered nurse, came down with what she thought was bronchitis very shortly after arriving home from a trip to South Carolina. She was taking the antibiotic prescribed by her doctor, but one day she became short of breath. She went to her local emergency room where a CT scan revealed massive pulmonary embolism. It is believed that a large clot originating behind Kim’s left knee, a result of sitting for long periods of time while traveling, traveled to the pulmonary arteries and lodged there. The blood clots blocked the main pulmonary artery and the primary branch to each lung, which are the arteries that provide blood to both lungs. This blockage severely reduced blood flow through Kim’s heart. Acute massive pulmonary embolisms carry a mortality risk of approximately 30% despite treatment.

Kim’s treating doctor recognized the urgency of Kim’s situation – the clots could not only cause damage to her lung tissue, but they could also prevent the rest of Kim’s body from receiving blood and oxygen, which could ultimately lead to organ failure or death. After consulting with the University of Maryland Heart Center team, the decision was made to immediately transport Kim to UMMC by helicopter.

Read the rest of Kim's story here