SIOUX CITY -- Madalyn Copcutt traveled more than 10,500 miles from her home in Perth, Australia, to Sioux City to have Dr. Giovanni Ciuffo remove a rare tumor from her heart through bloodless open-heart surgery at MercyOne Siouxland Medical Center.
It was the third surgery Copcutt, 31, has had to remove a tumor from her heart and the second one that Ciuffo has performed on her. Copcutt said Ciuffo saved her life.
"He has known me since I was 26. He's a surgeon that respects my religious beliefs and that's what makes the difference. That's quite hard to find, actually," Copcutt said, while seated between Ciuffo and her husband, Joshua, in a conference room at the hospital.
Ciuffo first operated on Copcutt in 2014 at a hospital in northeast Ohio, after her mother-in-law learned about the cardiothoracic surgeon and his bloodless heart surgeries. Copcutt, a Jehovah's Witness, won't accept blood transfusions because of her religious beliefs.
"The tumor was exactly in the same place in the center of the heart. I went in and I took it out. She recovered wonderfully from that operation," Ciuffo said. "She had multiple trips to the United States to get the echocardiogram to make sure that this tumor wouldn't be growing back. For about five years, there was no sign of this tumor growing back. In our cancer literature, anybody who had five years without a recurrence is considered cured."
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A few months ago, Copcutt had a routine checkup, which revealed the presence of a tumor. Ciuffo said this tumor seems to be a new tumor in a different area of the heart.
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"The problem with this type of tumor is that it can grow in other parts of the heart. In other words, it's like a propensity to develop a tumor since birth," Ciuffo said of infantile rhabdomyosarcoma of the heart.
Ciuffo, who became medical director of cardiothoracic surgery at MercyOne Siouxland Heart and Vascular Center about five months ago, looked at the images of Copcutt's heart and came to the conclusion that he could remove the tumor. In the days leading up to her surgery, Copcutt took medications that stimulated her body's ability to produce red blood cells.
"If you know that blood transfusion is not an option, there are medications to stimulate your own body to make blood, so that your blood is actually thicker than normal, so that even, god forbid, you lose some, you're still not profoundly anemic," Ciuffo said.
Then, Copcutt left her home for Sioux City, a place she had never heard of before needing Ciuffo's surgical expertise again. She arrived on June 29. Copcutt and her husband describe the community as "lovely," and Siouxlanders as "very friendly and "so helpful."
During a three-hour surgery on July 2, Ciuffo said he was able to successfully remove the tumor, which was about the size of a golf ball, through a 5-inch incision in Copcutt's chest. Ciuffo said Copcutt "virtually bled nothing after surgery" and that he is "very impressed" with her strength.
"The only way to cure this type of tumor is by removing it completely, leaving nothing behind," he said. "I removed the tumor and then I did a second circumference of the cut edges to make sure that anything that will be even slightly obvious will be removed. I think that gives a good prognosis."
Over the years, Ciuffo said he has encountered a number of Jehovah's Witnesses who weren't offered surgical options because of their religious beliefs. However, he said a patient doesn't have to be a Jehovah's Witness to have open-heart surgery without blood transfusion.
"There are studies showing that if you can have an open-heart surgery without blood transfusions, that's a lot better in terms of longevity," he said. "We've been offering this to the region and beyond. We're here to offer a world-class service. We do advanced techniques. We do complex surgery. We do minimally invasive surgery."