ROMEOVILLE – To say 93-year-old Leon Lasota is a survivor is putting it mildly.
This Nazi war camp survivor’s latest feat is surviving a new cardiac surgery – a transcatheter aortic valve replacement – to replace a faulty heart valve. It was a risky surgery at his age, but one designed for those who might have difficult with traditional open surgery.
Still, the procedure required a team of 20, including cardiac surgeons, specialized anesthesiologists and radiologists, heart-lung machine perfusionists, and professionals who took and analyzed CAT scans, angiograms and special echocardiograms.
Lasota did so well with the surgery that his daughter Susan Lasota, of Romeoville, said medical staff were taken aback.
“He was the talk of the hospital,” Susan said.
But the risk Lasota took on for the TAVR surgery might be considered a small one relative to the other perils he faced through his life.
Lasota was a political dissident in his native Poland back when speaking out got one assassinated. But he had to speak out, he said. It was the right thing to do. Between the Soviet Union, the Ukraine and Germany, his beloved country was facing extinction.
For taking that stand, Lasota experienced two assassination attempts; was shot twice in battle; tortured while being interrogated; dropped by parachute into enemy territory and left for dead; sent by train to Siberia; and spent three years in Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, know for its cruel treatment of prisoners.
Lasota lost his teeth and his hair from malnutrition, and came close to losing his life before he was released. But always the optimist, he calls the camp his “college.” Working as slave labor, he did learn enough about mechanics to be able to use the knowledge later in life.
In the battles he fought, he was shot twice, was wounded by shrapnel, was dropped into a war zone by parachute and forgotten about, and came within inches of being crushed by a truck after he fell off of it, but again and again he survived.
“My time didn’t come yet,” Lasota said.
He worked in The Silversmith Hotel on Wabash Avenue and later for a private company inspecting aircraft, including the Blackhawk helicopter when it was still a top-secret project. He also worked on two of the Apollo rockets.
Although Lasota regrets nothing, he mourns those he lost, especially a dear uncle who saved his life by lying to the Gestapo that an assassination attempt on him had succeeded. When the Nazis discovered Lasota was still alive, they beat his uncle to death.
This summer, Lasota will travel to Texas with his family where he will be honored at the George Bush Presidential Library.
“I had a good life,” he said. “I believe in God, and he’s the one who’s keeping me here. Only he knows why. Honest truth.”
During his life, Lasota has survived several other health scares, including scarlet fever, heart attacks, bypass surgery, a dual pacemaker implantation, prostate cancer and most recently, his aortic stenosis.
That was a scary one, his daughter Susan Lasota said. One morning last September, Susan said her father was gasping for air. When Lasota’s other daughter, Sylvia French of Oswego, arrived, he was unconscious and not breathing. French had learned CPR from her firefighter husband, Jim, and immediately began the process and saved his life, Susan said.
Two months later, Lasota underwent the fairly new TAVR surgery to replace his aortic valve with a new one at Edward Heart Hospital in Naperville. Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center hybrid endovascular cardiac surgeon Dr. J. Michael Tuchek said there are only about 300 hospitals nationwide that offer the surgery.
Tuchek’s colleague, Dr. Brian Foy, medical director at cardiac surgery at Edward Heart Hospital, performed Lasota’s procedure. The procedure is still not yet available for younger, healthier patients, Tuchek said. Tuchek performs them at Edward as well as Loyola University Medical Center.
No longer a death sentence
An aortic stenosis used to be a death sentence, Tuchek said, for patients too old or too sick to have open surgery. It would lead to heart failure, heart attack or stroke, In the meantime, the patient would likely have pain and breathlessness so bad even walking across the room would be a nightmare.
“You had a 50-50 chance of being dead in one year,” he said. “That’s far worse than even lung cancer.”
TAVR delivers a new aortic valve through a catheter, rather than with open surgery. It actually wedges the replacement valve into the damaged aortic valve’s place.
“It’s far less invasive than a major open surgery,” Tuchek said.
Aortic stenosis: A narrowing of the valve opening that leads from the heart to the aorta. May be present at birth, but more often develops later in life, caused by build-up of calcium deposits or by rheumatic fever.
Symptoms of aortic stenosis in adults:
• Chest discomfort, which may get worse with activity and reach into the arm, neck or jaw.
• Cough, possibly bloody.
• Breathing problems with exercising.
• Becoming easily tired.
• Heart palpitations.
• Fainting, weakness or dizziness with activity.
Source: The National Institutes of Health, www.nlm.nih.gov