Genetic defect brings family together

Aleo family credits Dr. Himanshu Patel for expert, compassionate care

Aleo family members wait for Denise Aleo to come out of surgery for a congenital heart defect

Family wears “We Love Team Patel” t-shirts to show support

Support and teamwork take on a whole new meaning with the Aleo family. Their dedication to one another is apparent when you hear their story, which began five years ago and continued at the University of Michigan on April 15, 2013.

On that particular day, 15 members of the family gathered at the hospital to support 53-year-old Denise Aleo as she was wheeled into surgery for a condition shared by her mother, brother, sister, nieces, nephews and other relatives. The condition, called thoracic aortic genetic disorder, is caused by a defect in the SMAD3 gene, and can result in life-threatening aortic issues. It is a topic the family knows all too well.

But it wasn’t just the size of the group that drew attention that April morning. It was also the fact that each member of the Aleo family wore a maize and blue t-shirt shirt that read: “We Love Team Patel.” The words were in reference to University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center surgeon Dr. Himanshu Patel, who would perform surgery on Denise that day.

Aortic problems: all in the family

Denise had been diagnosed with a descending aortic dissection a few years earlier. The plan, according to Dr. Patel, was to monitor her aortic aneurysm until it enlarged, at which point surgery would be performed. As in the past, the family put its trust in Dr. Patel.

Denise’s brother, Sam, had been diagnosed with an aneurysm, for which Dr. Patel performed surgery last October. Sam was 51 at the time. And their sister, Teri, had experienced an aortic dissection four years earlier, at age 50, which led the family to learn that they carried the genetic mutation. Teri had been transferred from St. John Oakland Hospital in Madison Heights to the University of Michigan because of Dr. Patel’s expertise in aortic surgery.

Following Teri’s life-threatening experience, the family learned that their grandfather’s aortic aneurysm in 1969 and their mother’s health issues were all tied to the gene mutation. The family also learned of distant relatives who had experienced health issues from the disorder, thanks to Facebook postings that helped get the word out.

At Dr. Patel’s recommendation, all members of the family have undergone genetic testing (via a simple saliva test), with five of the nine offspring of Denise, Sam and Teri also testing positive for the SMAD3 gene mutation. Those with symptoms have been prescribed medication for high blood pressure, which is commonly associated with the condition. They also have regular surveillance imaging to monitor an existing aneurysm or to look for any suspicious developments.

Cardiovascular doctors’ team effort pays off

“It is a pleasure to take care of such a loving and mutually supportive family,” says Dr. Patel, who has been a part of the Aleo family’s care for the last five years. “I am proud to say that it has been conducted in a multidisciplinary approach with the tremendous help of Drs. Anna Booher and Tim Cotts from our Cardiovascular Medicine Division who have played key roles in the care of the Aleo family.”

Researchers collaborate on SMAD3 gene mutation

Sam says the treatment the family receives at U-M is unparalleled, with healthcare professionals reaching out to others who are doing research on SMAD3. “It’s phenomenal to know they can put this synergy to work for the benefit of patients,” he says, noting that the doctors also collaborated to make sure his daughter could safely have a baby (Sam will become a grandfather in August).

According to Dr. Patel, “The opportunity to care for the Aleo family has allowed us to learn more about SMAD3 and its effects on the health of our patients. With their gracious involvement, we have been able to reach out to colleagues in Texas who conduct very basic research on the effects of SMAD3 on the aorta.” The research was done at the John Ritter Research Program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth),

Sam describes Dr. Patel not only as a highly skilled surgeon, but a person who listens intently and shows deep compassion for his patients. “I have the most respect for the work he does,” Sam says.

The “We Love Team Patel” t-shirts worn by the Aleo family during Denise’s surgery “were our way of showing our appreciation for Dr. Patel,” says Sam. And with Denise successfully recovering from her surgery, and other members of the family being carefully monitored by Dr. Patel, Sam believes more than ever: “We are blessed to have found such a capable man.”

University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center Logo - blueThe University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is the top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit the Heart and Vascular page on UofMHealth.org.