By Shanley Chien | February 07, 2018
Three Texas Medical Center doctors traveled to Colombia to save a young woman’s life.
Gabriel Mena, M.D., was busy in the operating room last May when a message popped up on his cell phone. The text came from a fellow doctor and friend in Houston who had heard about a young woman from Colombia, Mena’s home country, who had a rare heart condition and needed Mena’s help.
For months, Laura Caicedo, 23, suffered from a mysterious case of persistent chest pain and constant hypertension. Caicedo, who stands at 5’2″ and weighs 101 lbs., maintained a healthy lifestyle, exercised regularly and didn’t smoke. She had no history of health problems, such as diabetes or high cholesterol. By all accounts and appearances, Caicedo was healthy. But her blood pressure had skyrocketed to a dangerously high level, called a “hypertensive crisis.” Normal blood pressure ranges between 90/60 and 120/80, but a hypertensive crisis occurs when blood pressure spikes to 180/120 or higher. Caicedo’s blood pressure had reached an alarming 200/120.
Her heart was a ticking time bomb.
Doctors in Colombia were confounded by Caicedo’s medical condition for quite awhile. In March 2017, they finally diagnosed her perplexing problem: Caicedo had a tumor, called a cardiac paraganglioma, growing around her heart.
“I was really surprised and frightened at the same time,” Caicedo said through an interpreter.
Paragangliomas are rare tumors that grow in the nerve cells along the brain and spinal cord. Some types cause the body to produce excess noradrenaline and adrenaline, which affects various bodily functions, including heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. Left untreated, paragangliomas lead to heart attack, stroke and death.
Cardiac paragangliomas are even rarer. To date, no more than 50 cases have been reported. Given the location of the tumor and the high risk of surgical death associated with it, Caicedo’s doctors determined that it was inoperable and that they would continue treating her condition with medication. However, without surgically removing the tumor, they would just be delaying the inevitable: The growing mass would eventually engulf her heart and kill her.
Nonetheless, Caicedo and her family remained optimistic. Through a series of introductions, Caicedo learned about a foundation in Houston that might be able to help her and sent an email to a Houston acquaintance to act as a liaison. She and her family weren’t sure what to expect, but they hoped for a miracle.
They found one in Mena.