When Greg Ikiebe arrived in Michigan six years ago, he came looking for a new life.

He had left behind his native Nigeria, where violence and political unrest has long been rampant. Members of his family were murdered there.

“I try now to forget what happened back there,” he said. “But I still have family in Nigeria. I have two children there.”

So in 2013, when he stepped foot into Grand Rapids via New York, Ikiebe, 54, felt eager for a new beginning—a safer one.

A local church helped him get established in recent years.

“I’m in the process of applying for asylum,” he said. “It’s a long and difficult process.”

Ikiebe isn’t one to shy away from challenges.

When he landed a job at a Grand Rapids factory that makes plastic parts for automobiles, he didn’t let a lack of transportation stand in the way.

He walked two hours to work. And then two hours back.

When the pace slows

Ikiebe had been accustomed to taking medication for high blood pressure, dating back to his time in Nigeria.

When he went to the hospital three years ago to ask for medicine to treat his condition, it soon became clear Ikiebe’s struggle involved more than high blood pressure.

Further testing revealed that his heart was much thicker than expected, even considering his history of high blood pressure.

This suggested a diagnosis of a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Ikiebe was referred to David Fermin, MD, FACC, FHFSA, cardiologist and director of the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Program at Spectrum Health.

“When I first met Greg in 2016, he was doing hard physical work despite his heart condition,” Dr. Fermin said.

Dr. Fermin confirmed the diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

“It’s one of the most common genetic heart conditions, affecting one in 300 in the United States,” Dr. Fermin said. “(It’s) a disease in which the heart muscle thickens. Many people can manage it with medication and may not even have any symptoms. But some, like Greg, need surgery when the thick heart muscle severely obstructs blood flow.”

Ikiebe’s condition eventually rendered him unable to walk to work, so he had to a get a ride each day.

But even there he found he could hardly climb the stairs. His coworkers teased him about being lazy. But he simply had no stamina.

As time passed, his breathing grew increasingly shallow. His chest pain worsened.

The next breath

Dr. Fermin teamed with Spectrum Health cardiothoracic surgeon Tomasz Timek, MD, PhD, to perform open heart surgery on Ikiebe, a procedure called a myectomy to remove extra heart muscle to relieve the blood flow obstruction.

They performed the procedure on a chilly January day in 2017.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy accounts for just a small number of heart surgery patients.

“That’s about 1% of all the heart surgeries we perform at Spectrum Health, or about 15 to 20 surgeries per year,” Dr. Timek said. “Dr. Fermin and I work as a team on these.”

For surgery, doctors placed Ikiebe on a heart-lung machine to keep his blood and oxygen circulating while they shaved away the excess heart muscle.

Dr. Fermin monitored Ikiebe’s heart on ultrasound while Dr. Timek shaved the heart muscle around the aortic valve, removing 6 to 10 grams of tissue, or about a third of an inch.

The surgery lasted about four hours.

Amazingly, Ikiebe felt an immediate difference when he awoke in recovery.

“I could breathe,” he said.

Through it all, he felt no fear.

“I knew I was in good hands,” he said. “And I knew, too, that God was watching over me.”

Par excellence

Ikiebe had indeed landed in a good place. The Spectrum Health Cardiomyopathy Program has been recognized as a national Center of Excellence.

“Greg’s care here was the best and his prognosis is excellent,” Dr. Fermin said. “He may still have to manage high blood pressure and watch for heart disease symptoms, but no more so than other people.”

It takes about six weeks for the chest to heal after open heart surgery, Dr. Fermin said. After about two to three months, a patient should feel back to normal.

For his part, Ikiebe would prefer a word stronger than “normal.”

“Oh, I feel very, very nice,” he said, laughing. “To say I felt better is an understatement. I feel fantastic. I can even run now.

“And my coworkers no longer say I’m lazy,” he said. “I’m a small guy, so now I can move 50 times faster than any of them. Sometimes I tell them they are lazy.”

Dr. Timek said patients should schedule an appointment with a doctor if they’re experiencing exertion symptoms that limit their abilities.

While Ikiebe drives a car to work these days, he still cherishes his moments of physical activity.

Especially now that he has quit smoking.

“I had smoked for maybe 30 years,” he said. “No more. I quit the day before surgery. I’m taking care of my heart.”