Doctors from Hackensack University Medical Center’s John Theurer Cancer Center Perform 14-Hour Life Saving Surgery 

When waking up one morning in April 2020, 23 year-old Zulema Rubio, a recent college grad and legal assistant, experienced swollenness in her face. She attributed it to too much salt and not enough exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic. However after realizing her lymph nodes were hard to touch, she decided to make a trip to urgent care. That quickly landed her in the emergency room at Hackensack University Medical Center where doctors discovered a tumor. 

At first Zulema’s condition was unclear to doctors who thought that given her age, Zulema had lymphoma. But a few months later in July, Zulema was diagnosed with intimal sarcoma, an typwhich mimics pulmonary thromboembolism. Her condition was impacting blood flowing from her face and brain to her heart. 

She was sent to Dr. Andrew Pecora, one of the world’s foremost experts in blood and marrow stem cell transplantation, cellular medicine, and immunology research at Hackensack University Medical Center’s John Theurer Cancer Center. 

“When I met Zulema I was afraid for her. Here was this beautiful, young woman and her veins and face were swollen,” explains Pecora. “Once I received the tissue diagnosis I knew there was a very limited chance I could help her.”

However, special genomics provided guidance along with some of the best doctors in the country. Dr. Pecora worked with Hackensack University Medical Center colleagues with specialities in thoracic and cardiac surgery. 

Zulema’s journey from here was one that not many 23 year olds will face. 

“I was in the hospital receiving ongoing chemo for 24 hours straight, four days in a row, every two weeks,” recalls Zulema.

Chemotherapy was followed by more chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. Zulema then underwent radiation everyday for six weeks and was then ready for surgery. 

Her surgery required open heart surgery and it would be complicated. The cancer was in her superior vena cava, a major vein in the upper body that carries blood from the head, neck, upper chest, and arms to the heart. In order to be successful, doctors had to take out a part of this vein and put in tubing to allow blood to flow through. 

“I went in on March 24, 2021. The surgery took 14 hours,” says Zulema. “The first four hours were spent with doctors just trying to determine if it could be done.”

Zulema’s mom, Monique Jasso recalls the uncertainty of it all as the COVID-19 pandemic kept her from being with Zulema in the hospital. 

“After four hours in surgery, doctors called me from the hospital and said they would try,” recalls the tearful mom.

However the next update Monique received is that the entire tumor was removed and Zulema would be okay. Today, she is cancer-free.

“We just cried and prayed and are so thankful,” adds Monique. 

Her mother attributes the”amazing” specialists from Hackensack University Medical Center’s John Theurer Cancer Center along with her daughter’s fighting spirit. 

Dr. Pecora says the John Theurer Cancer Center is one of the few places in the country where the combined skills of the doctors needed were available to accomplish this procedure. 

“This procedure was as complicated as you can get from a surgical side. We used all the tools in the toolbox from a cancer perspective,” explains Pecora. “Without the skill of this entire team, she wouldn’t be here. The knowledge, skill and technical prowess that these doctors brought to achieve this along with nurses and radiation therapists was truly a magical coalition that came together to provide care she would not find many places in the country to achieve an incredible outcome.”

Zulema hopes that her story will inspire others who have symptoms not to delay seeing a doctor. She also hopes her journey inspires others to persevere. It took doctors persevering for the 14-hour surgery and Zulema herself to not give up during this hard battle. 

The experience has given Zulema, now 24, a new perspective and she is changing careers as she plans to pursue teaching. She is working on her Masters degree at her alma mater, Montclair State University. 

With it being national sarcoma month, please let me know if you’d like to speak to Zulema along with her doctor, Andrew Pecora. Both are available for interviews.