Alex M Up and Running: Alex M

A retired SWAT team member is as good as new after a mitral valve repair.

As a former member of the Newark Police Department SWAT team, Alejandro “Alex” Martin worked hard to stay in great physical shape. Daily five-mile runs were part of his routine. “When you work in that job,” he explains, “you have to be ready for anything and everything.”

But even Martin wasn’t ready for the alarming health news he received when, at a routine physical exam, his doctor told him that his heart murmur, diagnosed seven years earlier, was sounding worse. “I’d never felt dizzy, and I didn’t have any symptoms,” Martin recalls. So he was surprised to hear that something might be amiss.

Martin wanted to find out more about the murmur and decided to look for a specialist. A friend recommended Sabino Torre, MD, Co-Director of Interventional Cardiology at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center (CBMC) and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group.

More Than Just A Murmur

Two weeks after his physical exam, Martin underwent a stress test at Dr. Torre’s office. It showed that he was having premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), also known as extra heartbeats. “They’re generally benign,” says Dr. Torre. “But because he was diagnosed with a murmur—a potential sign of valve disease—years earlier, his PVCs prompted a closer look.”

Dr. Torre ordered a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE), a special type of ultrasound that takes pictures of the heart from inside a person’s esophagus. “The TEE showed that his mitral valve was billowy, which meant it was allowing blood to leak backward into the heart,” he says. Further testing revealed that Martin’s ejection fraction—a measure of how well his heart was pumping blood—had dropped below the recommended level of 60 percent or higher.

“The presence of a billowy mitral valve and the reduction in ejection fraction meant that Mr. Martin was a candidate for open-heart surgery to repair his leaky mitral valve,” Dr. Torre says.

Finding The Right Cardiac Surgeon

Dr. Torre referred Martin to renowned surgeon Arash Salemi, MD, Clinical Chairman of Cardiothoracic Surgery for RWJBarnabas Health’s Northern Region and also a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group.

“I was confident that we could repair Mr. Martin’s mitral valve and restore his normal heart function so we could prevent future problems and give him a durable valve capable of lasting the rest of his life,” says Dr. Salemi.

Within a short time after his initial visit with Dr. Torre, Dr. Salemi performed Martin’s valve repair surgery. “I call him a rock star,” Martin says of Dr. Salemi. “He explained everything to me before surgery and made me feel really comfortable.”

A Birthday To Remember

As he recovered in the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit (CTICU) at CBMC, Martin got a surprise for his 54th birthday: His nurses came to his room with a celebratory cake and balloons.

“One of the nurses said to me, ‘It’s a shame you have to be here for your birthday,’” Martin recalls. “But I told her I got the best gift anybody could have—they were able to repair my heart.”

Martin has high praise for his nurses and all of the fine care and support they gave him while he was hospitalized. Martin is also grateful for the pre- and post-surgery care he received from Dr. Torre. “He even called me one night on his cell phone just to make sure I was OK,” he says.

Today, nearly 18 months after his mitral valve repair, Martin is back to his daily runs. And while he’s now retired from the Newark Police Department, he’s found another place to call home—he works part-time in security at the CBMC Emergency Department.

“I’ve always enjoyed helping people,” says Martin. “And having the opportunity to help patients in a small way at CBMC is something I greatly appreciate.”

How The Mitral Valve Works

The mitral valve sits between two chambers—the left atrium and the left ventricle—on the left-hand side of the heart. When functioning properly, it allows blood to flow out of the heart and into the rest of the body.

“The mitral valve includes two flaps—similar to a pair of saloon doors,” says Arash Salemi, MD. “When they work in unison, it creates a perfect closure of the mitral valve at the end of a heartbeat that prevents blood from backing up into the lungs.”

When mitral valve prolapse occurs, it means the flaps don’t close completely. That can create a condition called mitral valve regurgitation, the most common type of heart valve disease. And while there are often no symptoms or only mild ones, it’s important to see your doctor if you have any symptoms.

“Mitral valve regurgitation can present very insidiously,” says Dr. Salemi. “It can start as mild and then become more moderate. Typically, by the time you feel symptoms like shortness of breath or overall weakness and fatigue, it’s already become more severe.”

Whoever your heart beats for, our hearts beat for you. Learn more about cardiovascular services at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center.