South Holland Woman Treated for Rare Heart Tumor

The general rule of thumb when it comes to pain goes something like this: “If it wakes you up in the middle of the night, get it checked by a doctor.”

In Sandra DeGraff’s case, the pain centered in her chest. Sometimes it was sharp; sometimes it was dull. More than once in the spring of 2009, it awoke the South Holland resident from a sound sleep.

“I’d get a couple little pings of pain first, then I knew it would be coming in one solid punch,” she remembers.

“Both of my parents died of heart attacks in their 60s, so I was concerned.”

Though Sandra herself didn’t have any known heart problems, her family history was cause for alarm, so she scheduled an appointment with her family doctor, Peter Neale, D.O. Dr. Neale recommended a CT scan and echocardiogram, which Sandra underwent at Ingalls Family Care Center in Flossmoor. Specialists there identified what appeared to be a blood clot or tumor on the upper left atrium of her heart and sent her to Ingalls Memorial Hospital.

Following additional tests, cardiologist Francis Almeda, M.D., a physician on staff at Ingalls, diagnosed Sandra with a suspected atrial myxoma, a rare, non-cancerous tumor that grows on the wall that separates the two chambers of the heart.

“Myxomas are more common in women,” Dr. Almeda explained. “And about 10% of them are passed down through families.”

Myxomas must be removed surgically. If untreated, they can lead to heart attack or stroke.

Before surgery, Dr. Almeda performed a sophisticated transesophageal echocardiogram (in which the patient “swallows” a tiny camera attached to a probe) to get a better look at the tumor.

“Dr. Neale and I then consulted with the cardiothoracic surgeon (Bryan Lee, M.D.), and our decision was to proceed with a 64-slice CT angiogram to further define the mass and assess for the presence of coronary artery disease before surgery,” he added.

On April 17, Sandra underwent successful open-heart surgery at Ingalls and within days was back home, sitting on the patio with her children and grandchildren.

Dr. Almeda is confident the tumor will not come back.

“I have seen her in followup and repeated a transthoracic echocardiogram, and there has been no recurrence,” he said.

“I really didn’t miss a beat,” she added. “All of my doctors were fantastic, and so was the care I received at Ingalls, especially in the intensive care unit. I’m so grateful that they found the tumor and removed it.”

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