NJ dog travels to Japan for heart surgery

Remy, 8, was in good spirits on this sweltering July day, but just two months ago the Cavalier King Charles spaniel was in bad shape.

"She was coughing, she was very restless at night, she could not sleep through the night," owner Cathy Cuni said. "She was warm she had to brace herself to get comfortable ... because the pressure on her heart was so great."

In September, Remy was diagnosed with mitral valve disease, a form of degenerative heart failure common in small dogs. Her doctors in Howell, New Jersey, discovered she had a severely enlarged heart and a heart murmur. They said she likely would not have much longer to live.

"I was devastated, crying," said Cuni, "And [the cardiologist] said, 'Before you even ask, there's one person in the world who can help you and he's in Japan.'"

Through the website Mighty Hearts Project, the Cunis learned about Dr. Masami Uechi of Yokohama, Japan, who was until recently the only surgeon in the world who could perform the open-heart mitral valve surgery. (Uechi recently trained a veterinarian to perform the procedure in London.) Uechi has performed hundreds of the valve repairs, which have a 95-percent success rate.

Uechi was the only veterinary surgeon in the world to be able to perform the surgery because it is extremely complex and requires very expensive equipment, said Dr. Phillip Fox, the head of cardiology at the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan.

A team of highly trained specialists is needed for the surgery.

"It's open-heart surgery—you can't just pop in and spend an hour repairing the valve," said Dr. Fox, who added that about a half-dozen of his patients have traveled to Dr. Uechi for the procedure.

After some research and a second and third opinion (including one from Dr. Fox), the Cunis made their decision and booked their tickets for May. Remy underwent surgery in early June.

The surgery cost $17,000 but with flights, hotel stays, and all the other added costs, the Cunis spent more than $23,000, dipping into a 401(k) account to cover the expenses.

"Could we have used another vehicle? Yes, the truck is broken," Cuni said. "But at the end of the day I'd rather have Remy than a vehicle."

Remy's surgery didn't cure her of the heart disease but it will slow its progression and lengthen her life. That is worth every penny to the Cunis.

"I can see that she's happy," Cuni said. "She's not waking up restless, she's not panting. She's able to live her normal life, which was the goal."