Tom Fister has been a doting husband to his wife of 41 years, Sue.
Sue has been in and out of the hospital in the last year with complications after her second bout of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Last year, she had an umbilical cord stem cell transplant. That was 15 years after she first had the same leukemia.
Tom Fister, 69, was so focused on his wife and her care that the self-described “hard-headed man” ignored his own health to the point where he could have died, his doctor said.
The Copley man was on medication for high-blood pressure, but otherwise did not know he had other health complications.
He was slowly having a harder time walking from the parking deck at University Hospitals to go visit his wife daily before the COVID-19 virus shut down access to the hospitals and the shelter-in-place orders went into effect.
On March 13, Fister got up, showered and went in and checked himself into the emergency room.
“I spent a month in the hospital and three and a half weeks in the ICU,” he said. “I pretty much just ran myself down.”
When he went to the hospital, doctors discovered he was in acute heart failure and kidney failure and had pulmonary hypertension and severe aortic stenosis, which is a severe narrowing of the aortic valve, said Dr. Joseph Lahorra, a cardiothoracic surgeon and chairman of the Cleveland Clinic Akron General heart, vascular and thoracic department.
Severe aortic stenosis is a chronic and progressive disease that is fatal if untreated, Lahorra said.
“He basically was not following up with anybody because he was taking care of his wife,” Lahorra said. Fister also was concerned if he got evaluated for his medical conditions, it would take away from his focus on his wifes care.
Fister is “a very altruistic guy,” said Lahorra, and a prime example of men represented in a Cleveland Clinic study released earlier this week.
The national survey by Cleveland Clinic revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting both the mental and physical health of men. Some men are negatively impacted, while others are making healthier choices.
In an online survey among about 1,000 U.S. males 18 and older, Cleveland Clinic found that 77% of men report their stress level has increased as a result of COVID-19, 59% of men say they have felt isolated during the pandemic and nearly half (45%) of men say their emotional/mental health has worsened during the pandemic.
The survey was issued as part of Cleveland Clinics fifth annual educational campaign, “MENtion It,” which aims to address the fact that men often do not talk about health issues or take steps to prevent them.
This year, the Clinic wanted to see what sort of effect the pandemic has had on men over the past six months and what their outlook is.
Here are a few other findings:
Three-in-five men (59%) feel COVID-19 has had a greater negative impact on their mental health than the 2008 recession.
66% of men say they rarely talk about the impact COVID-19 has had on their mental health.
Half of men (48%) have put off seeing a doctor for non-COVID-19 related health issues. That is even higher among men ages 18 to 34 (56%).
While some are struggling, COVID-19 has also inspired healthier habits in some. Nearly half of men (45%) feel healthier now and 22% are exercising more.
While 64% dont see an end to the COVID-19 outbreak in sight, the majority (71%) still remain optimistic about the future as the world continues to battle COVID-19, suggesting the pandemic hasnt dampened spirits completely.
“We couldnt take the temperature on the state of mens health this year without focusing on the one thing that has affected every person in this country and beyond,” said Dr. Eric Klein, chairman of Cleveland Clinics Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute. “Many men are finding themselves in new and different roles as a result of this pandemic; for example, they are out of work or are working around the clock at home looking after kids with their partners all while worrying about their familys health and their own health. Its no surprise that mental health rose to the top as a critical issue in this years survey.
“We want to remind men that their health shouldnt take a back seat, especially during a pandemic,” Klein said. “If youre experiencing symptoms that indicate a real health issue, dont be afraid to come to the hospital or schedule an appointment with a health care provider, either virtually or in person. Your health is too important not to.”
For Fister, once he got to the hospital, doctors had to stabilize his health, including getting him on dialysis three times a week.
Doctors wanted to do whats called a TAVR procedure, a relatively new procedure that has been a paradigm shift for patients and doctors, Lahorra said. The procedure eliminates the need for open-heart surgery in some patients, which would obviously require a much-longer recovery time. In a TAVR procedure, the aortic valve is opened up through the groin and patients can go home the next day.
But for Fister, even proceeding with the TAVR was considered risky, given his initial medical issues. So doctors temporarily opened the valve with a balloon to give him a few months to stabilize his other health issues. He had the TAVR procedure in July, performed by Lahorra and cardiologist Dr. Anmar Kanaan.
Doctors also wanted to keep Fister out of the hospital during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring because he was a severe risk.
“He is the exact patient who if he got COVID, he would not do well. He would do very poorly. We discussed that with him,” Lahorra said.
Hospitals have seen patients who were avoiding getting care for fear of contracting COVID-19, to the detriment of their health, he said.
But now, however, data have shown hospitals are safe, even for people at high riks for COVID-19 complications, he said.
“This is a vital message to get out. Continue with your routine health care and certainly for more urgent acute problems, definitely get seen. The environment is very safe,” Lahorra said.
Fister is grateful for what he calls his “medical miracle.” He feels great now and just got trained to do peritoneal dialysis at home. His wife, Sue, was just moved to a rehab facility and he hopes she will be able to come home soon.
Fister said hes a fairly private person, but agreed to talk about his medical journey because “there are people who might be helped from this,” he said. “If I can help some people, thats why were talking today.”
Beacon Journal consumer columnist and medical reporter Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.beaconjournal.com/topics/linfisher