Leonie Meadows faced up to many daunting realities when she learned she needed triple-bypass surgery, but Sydney travel wasn't one of them.
On September 14, Ms Meadows became just the third cardiac patient to have her surgery performed in the Illawarra, after a long-awaited cardiothoracic surgery service opened at Wollongong Private Hospital.
The service - the product of a public-private partnership - has performed 20 cardiac surgeries since starting on September 11, under the hand of cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Mohammad Azari.
Significantly, patients now don't have to leave the area to see their surgeon for post-operative care.
"I didn't want to go up and down the highway between Sydney and here. I just wanted to have it all done here, and get over the procedure here," said Ms Meadows, 70, of Barrack Heights.
"I was lucky enough to go up to Wollongong, just 20 mins away, to have the procedure. This is a real boom for the Illawarra."
By year's end, with a second surgeon soon to join the local service, the Wollongong theatre will run four days a week, seeing a roughly equal number of public and private patients.
Dr Astin Lee, head of cardiac services, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District, said the service would take in 100 public patients this financial year, with the number then expected to grow to 250, annually.
"We hope to be able to treat all our patients [locally]," he said.
"We have a high burden of cardiac disease in the Illawarra and Shoalhaven. Traditionally our patients, unfortunately, despite having significant disease and suffering, have to travel out of the area to access cardiac surgery, so this is fantastic now for our patients to be able to see a surgeon locally, and have their treatment locally."
Elective patients will receive their pre and post-operative care at The Cardiac Centre, a private practice recently relocated from The Piccadilly Centre to newly constructed rooms on Rawson Street.
Dr Azari said thoracic surgery began more recently, a particular area of concern in light of the pandemic, when stretched medical services and lockdown prevented some potentially life-saving check-ups.
"Later this week we're planning some robotic thoracic surgery. Basically [all] thoracic surgery will be on offer straight away at Wollongong." Dr Azari said. "There's a very narrow timeframe for lung cancer to be treated, so this is very important that COVID doesn't delay these services."