SIOUX CITY | Lori Loyd said her children point at a digital billboard displaying an image of Tayfun Gurbuz every time they drive by it.
The Mercy Medical Center cardiothoracic surgeon removed a one-inch tumor imbedded in a wall of their father Jeremiah Loyd's heart in November.
The minimally invasive open heart surgery, which was performed completely outside of the 37-year-old's body through a tiny incision, was the first procedure of its kind done in Sioux City.
"It's so cool," Lori Loyd said. "We talk about (Gurbuz) all the time and the amazing work he does."
Jeremiah Loyd calls the operation a "blessing." The father of a 12-year-old daughter and three sons, ages 7, 8 and 10, works in construction. After surgery, he was discharged from the hospital in three days and back to work in less than three weeks. Traditional open heart surgery, he said, would have crippled his family financially.
"Getting back (to work) in three weeks was everything to us," he said.
In the fall, Loyd began experiencing pain on the right side of his body near his kidney.
Doctors initially thought he was suffering from kidney stones, but a CT scan showed a piece of tumor blocking blood flow to his kidney. An ecocardiogram and transesophageal echocardiogram, ultrasounds of the heart, followed. The tests revealed a tumor inside his heart. A piece of the tumor had broken off and traveled to his kidney, where it was blocking an artery.
Soft tissue cancer, including heart cancer, represent just 0.7 percent of all new cancer cases in the United States. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 11,410 new cases of soft tissue cancer were diagnosed in 2013 and an estimated 4,390 people were expected to die from the disease last year.
"I just kept thinking I was gonna die," Jeremiah Loyd recalled. "I was worried about my kids and my wife. I didn't know what to expect."
Lori Loyd said every morning their children asked, "Is dad going to die?"
"It was really hard for them," she said.
Gurbuz said Loyd's heart could have pumped that piece of tumor anywhere in his body and that is was likely more pieces would break off. He said Loyd was also at risk for the tumor impinging on the walls and valves of his heart, causing it to fail. Loyd's only option was to have this rare tumor, which grows slowly and usually doesn't cause symptoms, surgically removed.
"Sometimes it goes up in the brain and patients come with a stroke," Gurbuz said of the tumor. "Sometimes it goes to the arm. Sometimes it goes to the liver, the spleen or the kidney."
Gurbuz said he encounters a single heart tumor annually, although he was scheduled to perform surgery at Mercy on another patient with a heart tumor the day after this interview.
"The heart is very resistant to a tumor. You almost never see a tumor on the heart," he said.
Given Loyd's young age and his strenuous occupation, Gurbuz didn't want to saw through his breast bone -- the common incision site for open heart surgery. Such a traumatic wound, he said, would've prevented Loyd from driving for at least a month and kept him from lifting more than 10 pounds for six months.
Gurbuz, who came to Mercy last spring, opted for minimally invasive heart surgery, a technique that is offered mostly at large medical centers. He picked up the procedure five years ago in Leipzig, Germany.
He performed 60-some minimally invasive heart surgeries at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in 2012. Overall, he said he has done close to 200 operations.
On Nov. 14, Gurbuz made a two-inch incision under Loyd's right breast and inserted long tools he described as "chopsticks" though a natural space in his ribs.
Working outside of Loyd's body, Gurbuz used the tools to open the inside of his heart and remove the tumor and the wall it was growing into. He closed the heart back up with a special device, as his hand couldn't fit through the incision, to tie the knots. He completed the procedure in about three hours.
Minimally invasive open heart surgery, Gurbuz said, isn't something taught during residency. The angle and the surgical instruments, he said, are very different than what most surgeons are used to.
"It's not easy," he said. "If you're comfortable with one procedure and you've done it for 20 years, it's tough to change it and go a different route."
Loyd said he was ready to leave the hospital after two days, although he was kept for three. He returned to his construction job in about three weeks; and he has since taken a second job as a janitor at a casino. He is also eager to lift weights again.
"I had pain in the beginning, but it didn't last very long," he said. "Before I knew it, I was ready to move around."
After Loyd's surgery, Gurbuz utilized the same minimally invasive technique for valve replacements at Mercy.
"The recovery is just phenomenal and the pain is very minimal," he said.