2nd opinion lets ex-Husky QB bypass open heart surgery

Two fortuitous events led Cody Pickett to UW Medicine’s Heart Institute for nonsurgical repair of his blocked cardiac blood vessel.

Cody Pickett, 41, had no reason to think his health and fitness were anything but top-notch. He’s stayed within 10 pounds of his playing weight of 220 while he quarterbacked the University of Washington Huskies two decades ago (2001-03). And for years he has worked out several days a week and practiced with the high-school basketball team he coaches in Idaho’s Boise Valley.

So Pickett’s jaw dropped when he learned late last year that he had a severe blockage of a cardiac blood vessel and, a month later, was told that the repair would require open heart surgery.

picture of UW Husky Cody Pickett in Apple Cup game
Cody Pickett quarterbacked the UW Huskies from 2001-03. 

“It was a wild, wild turn of events,” Pickett said. He had never had any symptoms of pain or weakness but was motivated to get a checkup after an uncle died suddenly of a heart attack last summer.

“In October, my calcium score was through the roof,” he said, “and then in November, a CT scan showed a serious blockage of an artery. So they were doing an angioplasty to take care of it with a stent, but when I came out after the procedure, my wife was crying. The doctor said they couldn’t put a stent in due to the way my blood vessels were connected near the blockage, and that I needed surgery.”

That was Dec. 30.  His wife, Carleigh, shared the experience on Facebook, expressing their anguish and asking friends for prayers.

“I scheduled the surgery in Boise,” Pickett said. “I told my team that I was going to be out for a while. It was an emotional three or four days, literally crying ourselves to sleep because I was facing this big surgery but I had no symptoms.”

As happens with social media, Carleigh’s social media post was re-shared and came to the attention of another ex-Husky, punter Channing Wyles (1988-90). Wyles manages accounts for Abiomed, a company that makes heart-assist devices. He knows Dr. Bill Lombardi, a cardiologist at the UW Medicine Heart Institute who happens to be an expert at catheter-based (nonsurgical) approaches with complex heart anatomy.

Wyles connected the Picketts with Lombardi and – bing! – the second opinion resulted in a successful stent-placement procedure on Jan. 10 at UW Medical Center in Seattle. Wyles, who had never met the couple in person, waited with Carleigh during Cody’s 45-minute procedure.

Pickett’s blockage, or lesion, sat in a curve in the left anterior descending artery, one vessel that feeds the heart muscle.  That orientation was made more complex, Lombardi said, by its proximity to a branch vessel that a stent might block if not placed exactly right. 

Cody Pickett with his Eagle High School basketball team
The Eagle (Idaho) High School boy's basketball team was thrilled to reunite with their coach, Cody Pickett, front left, on Jan. 12 after his heart-repair procedure. 

“There are a lot of people you can stent and get the same outcome as if they had bypass surgery, but they’re only told you can only have bypass surgery,” he said. “Every year hundreds of thousands of people get medical care and are told that they have only one option. Patients don’t have context to know whether that’s an accurate statement, but they can get that context with a second opinion.”

Admitted to UW Medical Center on Jan. 10, Pickett had the procedure that day and left the hospital four hours later. He was back coaching his basketball team on Jan. 12. By contrast, cardiac bypass surgery would’ve meant three to five days in the hospital and very restricted activities (e.g., no driving) for a month. “It usually takes six months to fully know your outcome,” Lombardi said.

Pickett knows how lucky he was. Had it not been for his wife’s Facebook post and the kindness of a fellow Husky he had never met, he would be facing a much more arduous near-term future.

“It’s hit me multiple times since I got home from Seattle,” Pickett said. “There’s also the fear of something unexpected happening with open heart surgery. So it was great just to see my kids the next day. And it was emotional before our basketball game Saturday (Jan. 15) because 10 days ago, I had told them I wasn’t sure I’d coach again this season.” (His team won by 30 points.)

“Channing Wyles needs to get a ton of love. And Dr. Lombardi is awesome,” Pickett added. The experience left him with a new perspective on the value of second opinions.

“I’m a trusting guy and I didn’t question at all when my doctors said I needed surgery. But looking back on it, I’m proof that a second opinion can make all the difference. Trust your doctor but verify, especially if you’ve never had a symptom.”

– Brian Donohue, bdonohue@uw.edu, 206.543.7856

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