Northern Indiana woman pioneers groundbreaking procedure for emphysema

Marie Weiss suffered with emphysema for 15 years. And then she learned about a new procedure performed by IU Health pulmonologist Dr. Robert Weller.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

Eight months ago Marie Weiss walked into IU Health Methodist Hospital supported by a walker – an oxygen tank in tow. It was something she had grown accustomed to after an emphysema diagnosis 15 years ago.

Last week she re-entered the hospital without the support of a walker or oxygen – a big smile on her face and new hope for her future. She is the first patient at IU Health to receive a non-evasive procedure known as endobronchial valve treatment.

Emphysema, a type of chronic obstructive disease (COPD) causes the alveolar space in the lung to lose elasticity and enlargement. The result is patients suffer breathlessness and fatigue which typically means they are less active.

“We could never make a reservation or an appointment ahead of time because we never knew how she’d feel. Sometimes we’d get to that date and she wouldn’t feel like going out. It was very confining,” said Dan Weiss, her husband of 22 years.

Marie Weiss began smoking at the age of 14 and continued until the age of 50. She said that, along with her work in a smoke-filled office at a steel factory attributed to her ill health. She was diagnosed with emphysema in her 40s.

“I was sick a lot and constantly on antibiotics and Prednisone at least twice a month. I was staying out of the hospital because I was proactive but everything was difficult – even daily care,” said Weiss. It was when she went to another hospital inquiring about lung reduction surgery that she learned about Dr. Robert Weller and the endobronchial valve treatment – a less invasive procedure than lung volume reduction surgery.

In lung volume reduction surgery a patient’s chest is cut open to remove the diseased portion of the lung. Endobronchial valves replicate the effects of that procedure without requiring incisions, by allowing the most diseased portions of the lung to collapse. In June 2018 the FDA approved the valve procedure as the first bronchoscopic treatment for emphysema in the United States. The actual valve looks like a small earring and is about the size of a dime.

Weiss underwent the procedure in July, under the care of Dr. Weller. He is one of five pulmonologists at IU Health Physicians who perform the procedure. Others in his group include Dr. Damien Patel, Dr. Aliya Noor, Dr. Francis Sheski, and Dr. Christopher M. Kniese.

The procedure isn’t for everyone.

Weiss underwent pretesting that included a 6-minute walk and thin section CT scanning to determine pulmonary functioning and anatomy of the lobes for exact valve placement.

“The upfront testing is a refined selection process to analyze the fissure between the upper and lower lung to determine who makes a good candidate,” said Dr. Weller. “We turn down roughly four candidates a year.” Weiss is one of the success stories.

“It’s very gratifying to see her now,” said Weller. “We went into medicine to help people and the reality is some we can and some we can’t. With emphysema we got used to the fact that gains would be marginal, not dramatic with the exception of lung transplant. This is not a cure but it’s a procedure to make life easier.”

Since her procedure Weiss has felt better than she has in years. She keeps an oxygen tank close by when she heads to the grocery store or on appointments but it’s what her husband now calls a “security blanket” rather than a lifeline. She continues with pulmonary rehabilitation to strengthen her lungs and will have regular check ups.

Her two children and grandchildren live hours away from her Munster home and until now Weiss hesitated to travel.

“This isn’t about vacations or trips; this is about family. Now I feel comfortable traveling and I’m not afraid. Dr. Weller has helped me with that confidence. He is very careful and conscientious,” said Weiss. “It’s been great for her to have the freedom – not being tied to a 50-foot plastic tube to breathe,” added her husband.