As the COVID-19 pandemic began forcing New York into lockdown, Carmen Brache felt the same anxiety that many others experienced – and figured it was probably responsible for the pressure she was feeling in her chest, and her shortness of breath. But when those symptoms continued to worsen, she reluctantly made an appointment with a cardiologist.
Two weeks later, during her echocardiogram – which uses ultrasound to reveal images of the beating heart – the technician excused herself and returned with a colleague. After murmuring quietly about what they were seeing on the monitor, they left again to summon the cardiologist himself, Dr. Richard Maisel.
“When he walked in I started getting very nervous, because I knew something was wrong,” Carmen said. The doctor, guiding her through the echo results, pointed out a lemon-sized mass growing in her right ventricle, close to her pulmonary artery. “I heard the word tumor, and that it was very rare, and that I needed open heart surgery – sooner rather than later.”
Shocked, she drove home in silence. “I couldn’t believe I needed open heart surgery, and in the middle of a pandemic. I was afraid to go into the hospital. Was this all just a nightmare?”
She and her husband, Roberto, began to research options immediately. A relative had recently had a great surgical experience at Mount Sinai, so they called the hospital and were referred to Dr. David Adams, Chairman of Mount Sinai’s Department of Cardiovascular Surgery. A day later, they drove to Manhattan from their home in Syosset, to drop off the DVD with Carmen’s echo results at the hospital. The next day, which was her 34th birthday, she met via video with Dr. Adams and Dr. Ahmed El-Eshmawi, another heart surgeon on his team.
“It was amazing how we connected over the video conference,” she said. “Even though Dr. Adams was wearing a mask, I felt peace in his voice. We clicked right away, and I had this feeling of security.”
Surgery was scheduled for the following week. But over the weekend, as she and Roberto and their two daughters were enjoying a backyard barbeque, Carmen’s nose began to bleed profusely. Struggling to stop the flow of blood, they called 911 and Mount Sinai, too.
Dr. El-Eshmawi told her to check in to Mount Sinai for observation immediately, and that he would push her operation to the front of the queue. Leaving their daughters with a family friend, Carmen and Roberto drove back into Manhattan and – due to COVID-related restrictions – said a tearful goodbye at the door of the hospital.
“That was the scariest moment, having to go in alone. I was sobbing,” Carmen said. “I got tested for COVID immediately. Then, as a nurse led me through the cardiac ICU unit, I looked through the glass of a room and saw this man covered in plastic wrap, hooked up to all these machines and wires. I wondered: is this how I’m going to look? It was like a movie.”
The morning of her surgery, Carmen signed the last of her paperwork and placed her jewelry – including the wedding band she had never removed in five years of marriage – into a white envelope. “Handing it to the security guard, the thought that crossed my mind was, if I died, my husband would have to collect these things.”
The next 24 hours were long and lonely, but the nurses – all of whom were cloaked in extra protective gear – tried to keep her spirits up. “I was terrified about dying without seeing my husband again,” she said.
The last thing Carmen remembers before surgery was climbing up onto the operating table, feeling extremely anxious, and the anesthesiologist telling her she was going to give her something to make her comfortable. The next thing she remembers is waking up after surgery, in the ICU, with a breathing tube down her throat. “My first thoughts were a sense of extreme pain, then relief and gratitude. I had made it.”
The best news? Her tumor turned out to be a lipoma – a benign, yellow growth of fat cells. Now that it was gone, her symptoms were, too.
“These kinds of tumors are rarely found in the heart,” Dr. El-Eshmawi said. “If we didn’t operate when we did, the consequences could have been very, very serious.”
Carmen was also relieved that the incision, made by Dr. Chartaroon Rimsukcharoenchai, was less than two inches long. “She had that consideration for me, since I was young and a woman, and I really appreciated that.”
When Carmen’s breathing tube was removed, Roberto was there at her bedside, smiling; thanks to an updated visitor policy, he was now allowed into the hospital. And the next day, before she was discharged, he slipped her wedding ring back onto her finger.
That, too, felt like a dream – a good one. From her initial diagnosis at the cardiologist’s office to her surgery had taken just one week. It wasn’t a week she had ever imagined or wanted. But it will be unforgettable, and changed the course of her life.
“Those doctors are heroes to me,” Carmen said, who is now home with her family and already cooking, baking, playing with her daughters and advancing toward a full recovery. “I am so extremely grateful. Everybody on that staff was amazing.”