Former Cook County police chief undergoes rarely performed heart surgery at Chicago hospital

Nearly 3% of Americans have a diseased heart valve, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Each year, thousands of them undergo surgery to have it replaced with either a mechanical valve or animal tissue.

In a FOX 32 special report, Corey McPherrin takes a look at another surgical option that’s rarely performed, and it’s happening at a Chicago hospital.

After years of adventure sports and working as a police officer, 56-year-old Joe Lukaszek can survive just about anything.

"Just like riding, scuba diving with my kids, fishing. Just being involved with outdoor activities," Lukaszek said.

Right now, the recently retired Hillside police chief is recovering from a rarely performed heart valve replacement surgery.

"Our plans were to retire, move to Florida. And knowing that we were moving to Florida, I just decided to get my heart checked," he said.

Knowing his family history, Lukaszek’s doctor sent him to get a stress test and an angiogram.

"Everytime I saw a doctor, a nurse, even the techs that were doing the tests, they would look at the test, they would look at me, and they’d be like, ‘You don’t pass out? You feel okay?’ I’m like, ‘I feel fine.’"

Those tests showed Lukaszek had aortic stenosis, meaning the aortic valve in his heart was narrowing. It needed to be replaced because his heart was not pumping out enough blood to the rest of his body. If left untreated, it can lead to sudden cardiac death.

"I’m moving down to Florida. I wanna scuba dive. I wanna fish. I wanna ride a motorcycle," he said.

That also means he didn’t want to have his heart valve replaced with a mechanical one or with animal tissue. He says it would make it difficult to enjoy all of his favorite pastimes because he would have to be on blood thinners the rest of his life.

"I researched the heck out of valves, replacement surgeries and I found what was called the Ross Procedure. Very, very few doctors across the country even perform this surgery," Lukaszek said.

One of them is at Northwestern's Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute in Chicago.

"So we like this procedure because it’s the patient’s own parts and we think the living tissue had better life expectancy, better durability and may be resistant to infection," said Dr. Chris Malaisrie, a cardiac surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Named after Sir Donald Ross from England, this procedure was developed in the 1960s. It’s also known as the Switch Procedure.

"We use the patient’s own pulmonary valve, which is a living valve, use that as a replacement. We use a donor pulmonary valve to take the place of the pulmonary position," Malaisrie said.

Unlike a transplant operation, patients undergoing the Ross Procedure don’t have to wait for a donor to become available.

"Donors are rare, but we can take the pulmonary valves from donors and freeze it right away. The freezing process will make sure cells from previous donor no longer there. There’s no risk of rejection with pulmonary valves from these donors," Malaisrie said.

Once frozen, Malaisrie says that pulmonary valve can be saved for about five years.

"I offer the procedure to patients who are less than 50-years-old or patients who look like they are less than 50-years-old because younger patients have the most to benefit from the Ross Procedure," Malaisrie said.

Six years over the age limit, Lukaszek was his own advocate and worked to convince Malaisrie to perform this procedure on him anyway.

"After talking, after discussing and after begging him, and pleading with him basically, we made a deal," Lukaszek said.

"Joe promised me he was going to get in better shape. Lose some weight and look like someone who’s going to live well into his 80s or 90s," Malaisrie said.

About a month later, after losing some weight and changing his diet, Lukaszek got his wish.

Malaisrie performed the Ross Procedure on him at the end of March. FOX 32 caught up with him about a week after the surgery.

"I honestly thought I’d be down for a month. I was down maybe two days in ICU," Lukaszek said. "Looking back in retrospect, I didn’t really understand how bad I felt."

Lukaszek said "words really can’t describe" how he feels about Malaisrie.

The Ross Procedure takes five to seven hours to perform. Northwestern Medicine does only about 25 of these surgeries every year.