“Your whole body plays the trumpet,” Rik Albani described, “You must be able to blow loud and soft, hard and high, but always with expression. Turning that into inspiring music comes right from my heart and soul.”
Unfortunately, Rik’s heart was experiencing serious complications. After receiving a prosthetic aortic valve 17 years ago, the valve became enlarged and began leaking. In addition to needing the aortic valve replaced, his cardiologist also diagnosed Rik with an aneurysm of his ascending aorta.
An aortic aneurysm occurs when the body’s major blood vessel—the aorta—becomes enlarged or dilated. These aneurysms tend to grow slowly over time, significantly increasing the risk of rupturing or tearing.
Knowing the importance and delicacy of this surgery, Rik turned to Dr. Leonard Girardi, the cardiothoracic surgeon-in-chief and chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine for help.
Without a doubt, Rik’s passion is making music with his wife, a fellow musician. He wanted to be sure that his surgeon understood this. “When I went to meet Dr. Girardi, I wanted to show him who I am and what I really want to be able to do,” Rik recalled. He snuck his trumpet into the office and performed for Dr. Girardi. “The response that Dr. Girardi gave me was confidence and compassion,” he continued. “I took this into surgery with me.”
“In patients that have valve problems, including a prosthetic valve problem, you know it will work for a period of time but, at some point, it may start to malfunction,” explained Dr. Girardi. “For Rik, sure enough, 17 years later, he developed an aortic valve problem as well as an aneurysm problem.”
Rik was quickly scheduled for cardiothoracic surgery. “We had to remove the aneurysm and replace the enlarged aorta with an artificial aorta made of Dacron,” detailed Dr. Girardi. “We then replaced the valve that was put in place 17 years ago with a new, modern valve.”
“I got to the hospital at 6:30 that morning, so I could spend time with Rik,” recalled his wife, Linda Hudes. “I didn’t know if I would ever see him again. As much as I have helped Rik, I knew that it was now all in Dr. Girardi’s hands.”
Nationally, this operation has a risk of 4.5 percent. At Weill Cornell Medicine, the risk is less than 0.2 percent. In fact, our surgeons have had a mortality rate of less than one percent for over 15 years. Weill Cornell Medicine is home to the region’s largest aortic surgery center, having performed more than 3,500 aneurysm repairs.
“Rik is a patient who walked in the door 33 years ago with one problem,” Dr. Girardi explained. “As he gets older and things changed, as they often do, he finds out he needs help in other areas. The beauty of this place is that he is able to get the full spectrum of not only what he needs now, but also what he might need in the future.”
As a long-term patient at Weill Cornell Medicine, Rik not only receives comprehensive care for his changing cardiothoracic problems but also benefits from innovative research being conducted by our physician-scientists.
“We use modern imaging, collaborating with investigators to understand the physics and engineering in the cardiovascular system,” Dr. Girardi said.
One of these investigators is Dr. Jonathan Weinsaft, a nuclear cardiologist and director of the cardiac MRI program at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Our cardiac MRI lab is at the forefront of translational aortic research,” described Dr. Weinsaft, “using fantastic new imaging approaches, which allow us to assess and identify subtle changes in the aorta. We can look not only at shape and size, but tissue properties and flow.” He continued, “We can look at fibrosis in the aortic wall, which may occur and be a driver in increasing size.”
This research is improving diagnostic techniques, as well as making surgical treatment more individualized. “The key challenge is going to be leveraging that information to develop new surgical approaches that are tailored to an individual patient’s aortic physiology. We are developing patient-specific medicine, ultimately, so as to improve outcomes,” said Dr. Weinsaft.
At Weill Cornell Medicine, cardiothoracic surgery patients benefit from a remarkably high level of care from nurses, anesthesiologists, technicians, and specialized surgeons, as well as the full range of treatment options, including minimally invasive heart surgery.
“I take great pride in being a member of a team that can handle the most complex patient situation, regardless of the time of day, whether day or night, the circumstances, or the nature of the problem,” asserted Dr. Girardi.
Just two months after his surgery, Rik was able to enjoy his favorite activities, including playing the trumpet. “It feels great to get back to my normal routine,” he proclaimed happily. “I feel very positive.”
Both Rik and Linda recognize the enormous role that Weill Cornell Medicine’s cardiovascular surgery experts have played in his recovery. “I wish my husband had never gotten sick,” said Linda, “but we met the most remarkable people. Thank you for helping Rik live a life, not a disease, and for helping Rik keep the music alive.”
They are now enjoying their life as before—as well as all the joy that making music brings them. “We didn’t know if he had played his last note, but now we have the power and the glory of the trumpet, and we are making music together,” she affirmed. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Learn more aboutDr. Leonard Girardi and Cardiac Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine.