WAYNE, NJ – Fourth Ward Councilman Dr. Joseph “Joe” Scuralli was elected unanimously this year as President of the Council. That was January 1. Scuralli attended the following meeting on January 15 but was then conspicuously absent for the next five months. Members of the Council and the Mayor would only say that Scuralli was away on medical leave but kept the reason for his absence private.
During the June 17 virtual Wayne Town Council meeting, Scuralli took his place as President of the Council once again and was greeted by his colleagues and the President of the Wayne Board of Education, Cathy Kazan who used the public comments portion of the meeting to offer her personal welcome back.
The Council President kept the matter of his absence private until recently, when he decided that his story might help save lives. TAPintoWayne had an exclusive interview with the Council President who explained how one critical decision saved his life.
Eight years ago, he was treated for esophageal spasms that were brought on by gastroesophageal reflux. This is where stomach acid enters the esophagus. These spasms were felt in his chest and were painful and sometimes debilitating. After receiving treatment, and losing some weight, the issue went away and Scuralli went on with his life.
This past fall, he felt the familiar pain in his chest and believed that his esophageal spasms were coming back. He was wrong but didn’t know it then.
The pain in his chest was intermittent and manageable, so he put off seeing a doctor, and went back to his old routine of eating better and taking over-the-counter medicine.
“At first, it seemed to be a minor thing but then, over time, the intensity increased,” said Scuralli. “I really started to notice it after Christmas, and it was in January that I decided it was something that I had to act on.”
He made an appointment with a gastroenterologist, Dr. George Pavlou, who suggested that Scuralli have an upper endoscopy performed. This is where a small scope is inserted into the esophagus to allow the doctor to perform a visual examination and determine a diagnosis.
Scuralli explained that his doctor gave him a warning: “If he didn’t find anything wrong, that I should go for a cardiac workup, because, and this is key: ‘it’s all in the same real estate," he said putting a hand over his upper chest.
It was during the drive home when he made the decision that saved his life.
“I couldn’t get an appointment for the upper endoscopy for four weeks, and I realized that I would have to wait for the results, too,” Scuralli said. “Then if nothing was wrong, it might be a few weeks before I could schedule the cardiac workup. I started realizing that it could be six or seven weeks before I knew if something was wrong with my heart.”
Scuralli made an appointment with a Dr. Saddad Toor, a cardiologist in Wayne, the next day, and at first, he thought that this wasn’t the right decision. “He gave me a resting EKG, and it was fine,” said Scuralli. “But the doctor said that he wanted to give me a stress test.”
An EKG is an electrocardiogram which measures and records electrical activity from the heart. A stress test is an EKG done while the patient is ‘stressed’ during physical exertion.
The Wayne Councilman was put on a treadmill to raise his heart rate with a goal of hitting 140 beats per minute.
“I got to 116 [beats per minute] and I felt tremendous pain,” he said.
The pain, to the Councilman, was similar to what he had felt from his esophagus spasms: “Eight years ago, the spasms I had were triggered by exertion, so it was no surprise to me that I was feeling pain.”
With his resting EKG results showing normal, Scuralli felt at that moment that his first instinct was correct, and his issue was the return of the esophageal spasms.
Dr. Toor had a different diagnosis.
“He told me that there were ‘dips’ in my EKG results that could indicate some kind of blockage, and he recommended that I get an angiogram,” Scuralli said. That was Valentine’s Day. “An appropriate day to look at my heart."
An Angiogram is when a catheter is inserted into the blood stream to deliver dye into the arteries so that they are visible on an x-ray. This is used to ‘see’ arteries that may have blockage due to plaque buildup.
Dr. Toor felt that Scuralli would need some kind of intervention, whether that be medicine, a stent or some other kind of treatment. So, he recommended St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Paterson where they could perform the angiogram and, if a stent was needed, they could do it while he was ‘on the table.’
A stent is a tiny tube inserted to help keep blocked passages open in the bloodstream.
“I went the following Wednesday, which was the day of the council meeting,” said Scuralli.
When the angiogram was over, it seemed to Scuralli that it was very uneventful, but Dr. Rex Ghassemi gave him bad news.
“He said to me that I had serious problems, and due to their severity, I needed open-heart surgery as soon as they could schedule it.”
“I wasn’t actively having a heart attack, so I had a choice to go home, but Dr. Ghassemi told me that if I left, that I probably wouldn’t make it back to the hospital,” said the Council President..
He was admitted immediately and placed on 24-hour-a-day I.V. nitroglycerin and Heparin to keep his blood vessels open and his blood thin. This was to prevent the heart muscle from being starved of blood, which would result in a heart attack.
Surgery happened early Friday morning. “They call it ‘cabbage’ CABG,” said Scuralli. “Coronary Artery Bypass Graft Surgery. What most people call open heart bypass surgery.”
The Councilman explained: “This was about the arteries that feed the heart muscles themselves, so the heart can beat. Not the blood that is being pumped throughout the heart itself.”
“I had 100% blockage in the left anterior descending artery,” said Scuralli. “They call it the ‘Widow Maker’ because if you have a heart attack due to that artery being blocked, you have a much bigger chance of dying.” He also had 95% and 85% blockage in the other two arteries.
Veins in Scuralli’s thigh were ‘harvested’ by Dr. Mark W. Connolly a Cardiothoracic Surgery Specialist at St. Joseph’s hospital. He used these veins to bypass the blocked arteries leading to Scuralli’s heart. His internal mammary artery was harvested from his chest wall as well.
This was not arthroscopic surgery. The Council President has a scar down the center of his chest, a reminder of when Dr. Connolly cut him open and split his ribs to access his heart.
Gratitude is what Scuralli feels toward his doctors. “They gave me excellent care and were right on the money with my diagnosis,” he said. “Their advice led me to make the decisions that, ultimately, enabled them to save my life.” His wife Annette said “My birthday was the day after the surgery and I call Joe’s successful surgery a gift...a gift of a lifetime”.
“If I hadn’t decided to go see a cardiologist when I had, or gone for the stress test, or left the hospital that day I had the angiogram, I would’ve probably had a sudden fatal heart attack and wouldn’t be speaking with you right now,” he said.
His message and reason for telling the story: “Many people that I speak to haven’t been to a doctor in years, or haven’t had a physical in years, or haven’t had bloodwork done,” he said. “I made assumptions on what my aches and pains were and I’m sure others are doing the same. Heart disease is a silent killer, so unless you are allowing your doctors to examine you properly, you could be at risk without knowing it.”
As of this writing, Scuralli is feeling great and has a lot of energy. He recently had a blood workup, and his cholesterol levels are lower than they have ever been measured. This is due to a complete regimen change, where Scuralli walks daily with his wife and sixteen-year-old son and has dramatically reduced all saturated fats from his diet.
The next Wayne Town Council meeting is July 15. Maybe, by that time, the meetings will be held in person in the Council Chambers. A visit that night, will show you a smiling and vibrant Town Council President with a whole new lease on life. Stop by to participate in your local government, and to wish him well.