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Connecting the Dots of Complicated Conditions

Martha Malson w/ Dr. Andrew Freeman, National Jewish Health cardiologistMoving to a new state means finding new health care providers. For Martha Malson, the move from Texas to Colorado meant finding potentially lifesaving care. “I asked my rheumatologist in Texas if he had recommendations, and he told me to check out National Jewish Health,” Malson recalled. Malson has a rare connective tissue disease called CREST syndrome/limited variant scleroderma, which affects the lungs, heart and other organs. She also has allergies. “When I called National Jewish Health, I was set up with a cardiologist, a rheumatologist and an allergist,” she said. She also was referred to a pulmonologist. 

In December of 2019, Malson began having fevers on and off. Luckily, her rheumatologist had referred her to Dr. Stephen Frankel, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health. “Dr. Frankel jumped all over it. He started running all sorts of tests to find the origin of my fevers,” Malson said. While waiting for the results of the last few tests, Dr. Andrew Freeman, Malson’s cardiologist at National Jewish Health thought she may have an infection in her mouth. “He suggested that I get an x-ray from the dentist. When I did, it showed that my left sinus was filled up,” she said. So, Malson was off to schedule an appointment with an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist at National Jewish Health. She also needed a CT scan of her sinuses.

Meanwhile, Dr. Frankel was studying the results of Malson’s health tests with cardiologist, Dr. Andrew Freeman. The last test Malson had was a transesophageal echocardiogram, or TEE. The TEE showed that Malson had a mass on the aortic valve in her heart. “It was hard to tell what the mass was, so Drs. Frankel and Freeman referred me to Saint Joseph Hospital,” Malson recalled.

At Saint Joseph Hospital, Malson met with Dr. Jason Shofnos, a cardiothoracic surgeon. “The TEE showed an abnormality on Martha’s aortic valve. Some people can have a valve infection that causes that shape. A small benign tumor also can grow on the valve,” Dr. Shofnos explained. He said Malson was lucky because most of the time these issues are only found after someone has had a stroke. Malson was told that she most likely needed open heart surgery to replace her aortic valve.

Three days before Malson was scheduled for open heart surgery, the CT scan of her sinuses revealed that she had a large infection. “My ENT wanted to put me on antibiotics and told me that I would need sinus surgery,” Malson said. Her care teams at National Jewish Health and Saint Joseph Hospital decided that she would have sinus surgery before the open heart surgery. 

“During Martha’s heart surgery, I found that the aortic valve wasn’t infected, but there was a benign tumor on the valve,” Shofnos said. In fact, there were two benign tumors there. “We took the valve out and replaced it. Now she doesn’t have to worry about having a stroke.”

Just a month after open heart surgery, Malson was already back on her feet. “I’m grateful to all of the doctors for getting to the root of this problem,” she said. “There’s a great sense of communication between the doctors, and you don’t always find that. I am blessed to have found my team of doctors here.” While she still has a long road to full recovery, Malson looks forward to many years ahead.