Wednesday, December 22, 2010 2:00 AM

Miracle year celebrated after Fresno Heart & Surgical removes heart tumor

A year and a skilled surgical team in a leading-edge hospital close to home can make all the difference.Twelve months ago, heading into their third Christmas as a married couple, Amanda and Joel Stetler found out she had a grapefruit-sized tumor pressing against her heart and squishing her right lung making it difficult to breathe. She went into surgery at Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital on December 23 without knowing what she might find or how Christmas 2009 would turn out.

This year, the couple embraced their 2 month-old baby girl Layla Hope, as they told their life changing story. For the third year in a row Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital has received a top rating for the quality of its cardiac care from HealthGrades®, a national independent health care ratings organization.

“It was wonderful to be able to get this care and stay here at home” Amanda said.

Amanda, 25 and her husband Joel, 27 have been active marathon runners for several years.  Amanda had been training hard up to last November for the Two-Cities Fresno Marathon and considered herself the most fit she had ever been.  The week before the marathon Amanda came down with flu symptoms and was still recovering come race time.  Amanda fought through the race, feeling better, but still suffering from bad coughing fits which seemed to worsen by the race’s end.

Monday morning Amanda visited the health center at CSU Fresno where she was tested for bronchitis and pneumonia with chest X-rays. Two days later when Amanda went back for the results, the physician’s assistant sat down with her and started to cry, saying x-rays showed a mass the size of a grapefruit in Amanda's chest.  Amanda had expected to get some antibiotics and an admonition to rest. Instead, she said, choking back tears:  “The whole world stopped out of nowhere, being so fit and health conscious and only 25.”

Weeks later she underwent surgery at Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital. Her surgical team was unsure of what they would find or even the extent of the incision that would be needed, Amanda said.   The mass was solid, unable to be drained through a tiny tube, so Amanda went through extensive open chest surgery.

The tumor had been pressing down on 60% of one of Amanda’s lungs, crowding her bronchioles, making her feel like she had asthma. Amanda says she’s amazed she has no permanent lung or heart damage. Her surgeon told her likely the tumor had been growing for years and was not a cancer that required follow up treatment.

Amanda said her kinesiology studies and work with cardiac rehabilitation patients, prepared her for the work of healing from major thoracic surgery. Amanda was told she would be able to walk a mile in 4 weeks, which in the first week she felt was so far away, but 3 weeks after surgery, Amanda was ahead of the game completing a 1-mile walk. And less than a year later, she was back training for marathons.

Amanda says marathon running is more of a mental sport than a physical sport and her race training helped her cope through what she expressed as “the most painful thing she has ever gone through.”  With the help of physicians and Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital’s team of caregivers, Amanda’s life was saved and Amanda and Joel have been able to pay off all their medical bills.

“Everyone treated me very, very wonderfully; that hospital is like a hotel,” said Amanda.  She had never had surgery or been overnight in any hospital before and said she felt lucky to have world class care right here in Fresno, so her family could stay at their side.

Amanda told Joel if she made it through the surgery she wanted to have a baby. “He had been ready, but I wanted to wait until I finished grad school,” she said. Then she teared up again, “You never know how many days you’re going to have…It was scary to think about leaving this earth without having a child.”

 Joel and Amanda expressed the joy their little girl Layla Hope, 11 weeks old, has brought to their home after such a difficult and challenging year.  As they sat in their living room with the Christmas tree behind them both embracing Layla, they smiled: “Layla is the good that came from this. This Christmas is going to be a little better.”

This story was reported by Ashley Gunlund. She can be reached at