Published on April 06, 2021


Covering the Beat: How Specialized Surgery Fixed Wendy Rieger’s Heart

For Wendy Rieger, journalist and TV news anchor at NBC4 Washington, each new day is demanding. There’s a constant stream of information, details and deadlines to manage to help keep the community informed and safe, especially with the events of the past year. To watch her newscasts, you see the expertise and heart Wendy brings to her work. But you would never have suspected that for many years, her heart wasn’t functioning at its best.

During a doctor’s appointment a couple years ago, Wendy learned she had Atrial Fibrillation or AFib. AFib is a problem with the heart’s electrical system that upsets its normal rhythm and can cause the heart to beat fast. Her cardiologist explained that AFib can dislodge a blood clot and cause a stroke. She had a procedure to correct her heart rhythm and began regular visits with her cardiologist.

This past summer, Wendy noticed something was wrong with her heart again. “I felt fluttering and my heart was going crazy all over the place,” she said. Wendy was back in AFib. This time her doctor told her that there was a second issue. Her heart’s mitral valve was in bad shape. “It was shredded and flapping around,” she added. Wendy had known since her 20s that she had mitral valve prolapse, a condition in which the flaps of the mitral valve don’t close tightly. In Wendy’s case, blood was beginning to leak backward through the valve. She needed surgery.


“The combination of the AFib and the progression of her mitral valve prolapse to a leaky valve started to cause a lot of symptoms. Wendy was short of breath, had a cough, migraine headaches and fatigue,” said Paul Massimiano, MD, heart surgeon at Adventist HealthCare White Oak Medical Center.

Dr. Massimiano, a leading expert in minimally invasive mitral valve surgery, and Niv Ad, MD, heart surgeon and a recognized leader in the specialized Maze surgery for AFib, worked together to repair Wendy’s heart during a complex surgery.

“It’s like a well-choreographed ballet between the electrical part of the surgery to restore her normal heart rhythm and the structural part to repair the heart valve,” Dr. Ad said.

Wendy’s surgery went very well. She stayed in the hospital for four days surrounded by an experienced care team. “I was blown away by their capabilities. The surgeons were so confident and reassuring. They are the mechanics and electricians of the heart,” she said. Meanwhile, “the nurses at White Oak Medical Center care for your spirit. They do the healing. They kept me going and gave me hope,” Wendy said. “Whatever you need physically, psychologically, they are amazing.”


Recovering from open-heart surgery takes time, usually between six to eight weeks. Wendy describes highs and lows during that time, but had support. “Dr. Massimiano told me that you have to be patient with yourself and also encouraged me to go for walks and keep moving.”

One week after her surgery, Wendy walked a mile with a friend. “I was stunned. It wasn’t fast but I did it,” she said. Her recovery also included cardiac rehabilitation at Adventist HealthCare Rehabilitation in the Medical Pavilion at White Oak, during which she participated in medically monitored and individualized exercise instruction. The supervised workouts helped to condition and strengthen her heart, which was functioning at 100% for the first time in a long time.


Wendy is back to work and looking forward to long-distance bike rides outdoors, an activity she loves, as the weather gets warmer.

“I’m feeling terrific; better and more normal than I have in ages,” she said. Wendy realizes that for a little while, she put off getting help for her heart despite some of the signs and symptoms she experienced.

“Listen to your body is so cliché but so true,” Wendy advises. “It really is important how you feel. Ask yourself, ‘How is your heart and the health of me inside?’ See your doctor regularly and bring up concerns.”

She added, “We take the fact that we are alive for granted. We are miraculous. Astonishing. After heart surgery, I have a whole new appreciation of that.”

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