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Monday, April 15, 2024

'Thought this was the end.' Man with football-sized heart tumor thankful for surgeon who stepped up when others wouldn’t

CHICAGO — A rare tumor was suffocating the patient’s heart. The complex case left Michael Dilillo thinking his life was over until he found a surgeon willing to take on the risky procedure. The end result was a major win in the operating room. 

“I walk a lot and for my age I felt pretty active, but I felt there was something wrong,” he said.

Dilillo’s gut feeling was right. There was something very wrong in his heart.

Northwestern Medicine cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Christopher Mehta had never seen anything like it. Tumors in the heart are rare and usually measure about 1 to 3 centimeters.

“This tumor that we removed was about 19 or 20 centimeters,” Mehta said.

That’s the size of a football. Mehta was the only doctor who agreed to operate.

“I was able to find Dr Mehta but before him, I went to some other doctors, and they said they wouldn’t touch it. They said there’s no way,” Dilillo said.

“When I talked to Michael about this surgery, I was very frank with him. I said there was a very real possibility we may not be able to get him off the table,” Mehta said.

That meant the 69-year-old and his wife Marianne had to have some difficult conversations.

“(We) Actually thought this was the end and we took care of all necessary paperwork that you would when you know your days are numbered,” Dilillo said. “And we basically assumed that I may not make it through.”

“The (tumor had) a certain amount of heart muscle attached to it as well,” Mehta said.

Removing the massive tumor was just one part of the complex, 12-hour procedure. 

“We could also see the tumor was invading the right side of his heart, the right ventricle and also his pulmonary valve and pulmonary artery, so we knew once we removed this tumor, we were going to have to reconstruct parts of the heart,” Mehta said.

Dilillo spent five weeks in the intensive care unit.

The grandfather of five — plus a sixth on the way — is grateful to be around for his growing family.

“It would have killed me,” he said. “It just would have been a matter of time. God willing, we found the right doctor. I’m very fortunate.”

Doctors are closely following Dilillo to make sure the cancerous tumor doesn’t grow back. And so far, he hasn’t needed any further treatment.

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