Getting to the heart of the matter


Updated Nov. 2

To the Editor:

It is Monday, and my husband will be released later today from his eight-day hospital stay for open-heart surgery to repair a mitral valve.

During the last nine-plus months, my husband was having difficulty breathing and pain in his legs and hips. He only mentioned this in mid-August. Based on the recommendation of a friend (who also happens to be a doctor), he went to an M.D. and nutritionist in New York City, who ruled out Lyme definitively and put him on a two-week cleanse which rid him of acid reflux.

Yes, this was good, but the pain in his legs and the breathing difficulty did not go away. Nor did it get better when we attended a wedding at 7,000 feet in New Mexico in September. In fact this man —10 years older than me — was someone whom I usually trailed in airports while doing my best to keep up, but now was more like a 100-year-old man, barely able to walk or breathe. Then I had to be in New York for a training, and when we got off the boat on our way home we ended up going straight to his nurse practioner at Vineyard Medical Services and then straight into the ER, getting to spend the rest of the week at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

Dr. Joel McReynolds was assigned to my husband. Besides having moved to the Island only two days earlier, he was great. They did a full battery of tests and imaging. What appeared as possible pneumonia was in Dr. McReynolds’ opinion fluid taken on because of the nonfunctioning mitral valve. Dr. McReynolds explained what he believed was going on, and that he would defer to Dr. Tim Guiney, the staff cardiologist, who was to return from Mass. General for his Thursday/Friday patients on-Island. Dr. Guiney saw my husband as promised and made the same diagnosis, and explained what preoperative procedure was required at Mass. General. This was Thursday; on Friday it was confirmed that we would need to go to Boston on Monday. Once we got back, we had 11 days to wait until surgery.

I was lucky to find Churchill Suites short-term-stay apartments, less expensive than Beacon Hill Airbnbs and even closer to where my husband was in the hospital then the two expensive hotels flanking the MGH campus. I have never had a better medical experience in my life. There were three Vineyarders on the cardio floor, and I ran into other Vineyarders visiting Islanders in the hospital. I hope everyone is doing well.

Midweek is when “A Heart for a Hart” GoFundMe campaign hit the Internet. Although I don’t know Olivia personally, she was in my older son’s class at MVRHS, so of course I made a donation. Besides being able to provide Sofia with a night’s stay in Boston, I was able to visit Olivia, who was now in the same ICU room my husband had been in following his surgery the previous Monday. She was in good spirits, her mom never leaving her bedside.

So what’s the takeaway? Even if you don’t have heart pain, not breathing easily is an important sign of something wrong; pain walking that is not muscular or from bruising is another sign, and fluid retention/bloating that does not subside; pay attention when alternative modalities do not clear up symptoms.

Thank you to everyone who cared for my husband at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and yes, the food was delicious and fresh. Also thank you to the amazing cardio staff, surgeon, and Dr. Tim Guiney at Mass. General.

Valerie Sonnenthal


An earlier version of this story misspelled Dr. Joel McReynolds’ name.