Heart Patient Judy Casillas Helps Others Heal


After a year of stress, healing and fierce determination, Judy Casillas has come full circle.

Last March, the 72-year-old Valley Center resident underwent triple bypass surgery at Palomar Medical Center. Today, she is once again on the cardiac floor of the hospital – but not as a patient. Now, she is volunteering as an ambassador for cardiac patients and families.

“Everyone was so wonderful to me while I was a patient,” Judy says.

“I wanted to pay it forward. I wanted to do something for others. So if I can answer their questions or make them feel better by telling them about my good experience, then I’m happy.”

Judy’s “good experience” began about a year ago. After she finished exercising, she felt a “dry, shortness of breath as if I was walking fast in a Santa Ana,” she says. “I just thought I was out of shape and it wasn't that bad.”

However, a high blood pressure reading and worrisome results of an EKG sent her to Palomar Health Cardiologist Christopher Gilbert, M.D., who discovered problems with Judy’s arteries. It was determined she needed an angiogram and possibly an angioplasty to open her arteries.

On March 27, in preparation for her procedure, Judy was stretched out on the table in the catheterization lab at Palomar Medical Center listening to her favorite Elvis Presley tunes. Suddenly, she felt that same breathless discomfort that she experienced after exercise. 

Cardiac Surgeon Surin Mitruka, M.D., was called in and told Judy one of her arteries was 98 percent closed and he needed to perform open heart surgery the next day to repair her clogged arteries.

“My heart went pitty-pat. I thought, ‘Uh-oh, this is not good,’” Judy recalls. “But when Dr. Mitruka came in and we talked, I felt very calm. He has such a calming way about him. He explained things so I could understand it and I knew I was in excellent hands.”

As a cardiac surgeon, it’s Dr. Mitruka’s role to explain the procedure to the patient and to ease them into the proper state of mind.

“Through my experience, what I’ve come to appreciate is that the patient and the family are usually stunned at the diagnosis and in a state of disbelief. They have encountered the unexpected and are anxious and concerned about what it means,” Dr. Mitruka says.
“If I am abrupt and curt and use big words they don’t understand, it makes the situation worse.”

It’s been proven, he says, that surgical outcomes are better if the patient is calm and confident going into a procedure. So, he puts on what he calls a “Zen mask” and quietly and gently talks to the patient and their loved ones.

“I tell them I have all the information and I know the facts of their case and I say calmly, ‘So, here’s the situation,’” he says. “I never tell a patient that surgery is their only option. When they know they have options, you can see the calm and peace that descends on them. I told Judy, as I tell all of my patients, I was certain I could get her through this. But, the recovery would be up to her.”

After her successful surgery, Judy was in the hospital for six days. Her post-surgical adjustment wasn’t always easy.

When I got home, it was difficult because I couldn’t do as much as I wanted to do,” Judy says. “I have always been very independent and it was hard to let other people do everything for me.”

She admits she suffered from some mild depression after her hospital stay, which is common for patients after major heart surgery. For Judy, cardiac rehab was the ideal antidote.

Ninety percent of a patient’s recovery “happens in their head,” Dr. Mitruka says. “If you want to get better, you will!”

“It was so calming and reassuring to be in rehab with people who had gone through some of the same things,” Judy says.

Wendy Atchley, cardiac rehab supervisor at Palomar Health Downtown Campus, calls Judy “the model patient.”

“When she first joined the group I don’t think she knew how cardiac surgery was going to change her life. But she was committed to doing whatever she had to do to get healthy,” Atchley says. “Judy always attended class with a smile and personally met every new patient, giving them positive words of encouragement.”

Patients usually begin cardiac rehab a few weeks after their surgery, meeting three times a week for a total of 36 sessions. The purpose of cardiac rehab is to get a patient stronger. But it’s also about teaching patients how to prevent this from happening again.

“There are things you can control like nutrition, stress management, weight loss and quitting smoking. But you can’t do anything about how old you are, family history or gender,”

Atchley says. “We try to get patients to change the things they can in order not to have another cardiac event.”

When Judy first entered cardiac rehab, she wasn’t walking as fast as she wanted to. But by the time she finished rehab, “I could keep up with anybody,” she says, noting that she tries to walk twice a day for 30 minutes at a time.

Judy’s cardiac rehab group bonded and fed off of each other’s progress and success.

“Judy was that little piece of glue for the group, holding them together,” Atchley says. “Judy was definitely the ringleader.”

Cardiac rehab wasn’t like any gym Judy had ever experienced. 

“I worked out but I wasn’t worn out, I was exhilarated! There was music and the camaraderie of people,” Judy says. “Every time I went to cardiac rehab I felt like I was going to visit good friends.”

Patients don’t always realize the psychological benefits they derive from cardiac rehab and how it can escalate their return to health.

“Patients often come in here depressed and frightened, but if they complete the program, we often see them transformed by the time they leave,” Atchley says.

The fact that Judy has made such an impressive recovery is no surprise to Dr. Mitruka.

“Judy is someone who loves life. She has a purpose and she wanted to get better and move on,” Dr. Mitruka says. “She has a family who loves her and this whole experience was just a minor bump in the road for her.”

Although cardiac rehab is not mandatory, Dr. Mitruka always encourages his patients to at least try it after surgery. He tells patients that cardiac rehab will help them, but most of all it will help them help themselves.

“Sure, rehab will get you stronger and back on your feet. But the underlying purpose is not physical because you would get stronger anyway,” Dr. Mitruka says.

“The real benefit of cardiac rehab is the psychological healing that needs to occur so you can move on with your life. Just like Judy has.”

Anyone who has met Judy agrees that her volunteer job as a cardiac patient ambassador is perfect for her.

“Judy sees her new role on the cardiac floor as what’s supposed to happen,” Atchley says. “She’s very inspiring."

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