Minimally Invasive Care Helps Retired FIU Administrator Outsmart A Heart Attack

After undergoing quadruple coronary bypass surgery, many patients might hesitate to display their scars. Not Larry Lunsford. He proudly shows off the incisions from his recent surgery — not because they are large or dramatic, but because they are surprisingly small.

Joseph McGinn, Jr., M.D., chief of Cardiac Surgery at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute.

Dr. Lunsford, the retired vice president of student affairs at Florida International University, considers himself fortunate that he had his bypass surgery at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute using a minimally invasive technique pioneered by the Institute’s chief of cardiac surgery, Joseph McGinn Jr., M.D.

Instead of the traditional approach that requires cutting open the patient’s chest, splitting the sternum and retracting the ribs, Dr. McGinn’s minimally invasive coronary artery bypass graft surgery accesses clogged arteries through a small, two- to three-inch incision between the ribs. Using a camera to guide him inside the chest, Dr. McGinn operates on the beating heart rather than stopping the heart and using a heart-lung machine. As a result, patients have less pain, a quicker recovery and a very small incision.

Within weeks of his December surgery, Dr. Lunsford, 69, was back to normal activities and showing off his tiny scar to anyone willing to look.

“I’m not shy,” says Dr. Lunsford, who retired from FIU in 2019 after almost 30 years at the university. “Everyone’s amazed at the surgery and how well I’ve recovered.”

(Watch video: Hear from Larry Lunsford, retired vice president of student affairs at Florida International University, and Joseph McGinn Jr., M.D., chief of cardiac surgery at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, as they recount Dr. Lunsford’s minimally invasive bypass surgery, a technique pioneered by Dr. McGinn. Video by Dylan Kyle. ) 

Dealing With The Diagnosis

Upon hearing he needed  coronary artery bypass surgery in early December, Dr. Lunsford was both concerned and crestfallen. The procedure is used to treat the narrowing of the arteries that supply oxygen and nutrients to the heart. It is recommended when arteries are so blocked by buildup of fatty material called plaque that patients run a high risk of a heart attack.

“I had all four arteries blocked, one almost completely,” Dr. Lunsford says. “I was a walking time bomb.” 

Dr. Lunsford knew that recovery from traditional bypass surgery can be painful and grueling. He saw what that looks like when his wife’s brother underwent a quadruple bypass in Philadelphia the year before and struggled mightily after having his chest cut open. “They split his sternum and it took him months and months to recover,” he says.

So when Dr. Lunsford was offered a minimally invasive procedure that would dispense with the need to open his chest or cut any muscles, “I welcomed it.”

Nearly 500,000 coronary bypass surgeries are done each year in the United States, but only about 5 percent are performed using this innovative approach, says Dr. McGinn, who teaches the technique to other doctors around the world. “When you have an alternative like this, it is very helpful,” Dr. McGinn explains.

Although many heart surgeons are not yet using the minimally invasive technique, Dr. Lunsford says it makes sense. He is grateful he sought care at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, which has been at the forefront of innovation and minimally invasive procedures. “I would hope that it would catch on and be the method of surgery in the future for bypasses,” Dr. Lunsford says. “I just think it’s amazing. My brother-in-law… Why wasn’t his doctor doing this?”

The Genetic Connection

Dr. Lunsford underwent his surgery with Dr. McGinn and his team at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute on December 6. A few days later he was released from Baptist Hospital and shortly thereafter got back his regular routine of gardening and walking two miles a day. “I’d say I’m 98 percent back to where I was prior to the surgery,” he says.

Dr. Lunsford has always been fit and athletic, running a marathon in his younger days. At FIU, he played racket ball competitively every week, often with students. He switched from running to walking in recent years because it was less stressful on his knees, but has continued to make physical activity a part of his daily life. He also has made visits to his long-time Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute cardiologist, Percy Aitken, M.D., a part of his health routine. The discovery of his blocked arteries came after a visit with Dr. Aitken last fall, when Dr. Lunsford requested a stress test.

One reason Dr. Lunsford says he has been so diligent about his heart health is his family history. His father and brother both died of strokes — his father at 62 and his brother at 42. His mother also had several heart attacks and strokes in her lifetime. “That’s why I started going to a cardiologist over 20 years ago and have annual visits — just to keep a check on myself,” he says.

Still, he was not expecting a bad result from his stress test or that efforts to unblock his arteries percutaneously in the cath lab with interventional cardiologist Bernardo Lopez Sanabria, M.D. would have to be halted because the blockage was too extensive.

Upon being told he needed bypass surgery even though he did everything right, “I was disappointed,” he says. “I had no symptoms. I work out. I’m in fairly good shape since I retired and I walk two miles every day. And I have a good diet.” Much as he tried, however, he couldn’t avoid his heredity, he says.

A Great Outcome

Dr. Lundford’s case is a great example of why it’s important for even people who think they are healthy to know their family history and see their physicians regularly, Dr. Aiken says. It also underscores the importance of having a healthy lifestyle. “His self-care did pay off as he developed atherosclerotic heart disease in his late 60s, as opposed to his 40s like some of his family members,” says Dr. Aitken. “It also underscores the importance of vigilance and a low threshold to investigate in a patient with a family history of coronary artery disease.” 

Dr. Lunsford doesn’t like to think about what might have happened if he hadn’t had that stress test.

“To be honest with you, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today,” he says.

Dr. Lunsford advises anyone else who needs bypass surgery to learn about the minimally invasive approach he underwent with Dr. McGinn, and to make sure their surgeon is experienced. “I would tell them, ask your cardiologist about this method. Is there any way that you can have this type of surgery versus the other [traditional approach]?” he says. “I’ve recovered so well, and I think this due to the type of surgery that Dr. McGinn did.”

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