Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, but sometimes, there are very few signs, especially for heart valve disease.
The heart, as most remember from high school biology class, has four valves that separate the chambers of the heart and act as “gates” to keep the blood flowing in the right direction through the chambers. When the valves open and shut correctly, they cause the “lub-dub” sounds, but when they don’t properly open and close, the blood flow is disrupted and the person then has heart valve disease.
The valves can either be too narrow or they may not close tightly enough. “The most common heart valve problem is a calcified and narrow aortic valve,” says Dr. Jeffrey Newman of the Palm Beach Health Network. And older persons are at higher risk, but the early signs are subtle. Some types of valve disease are mild and can be monitored or treated with medication but almost always lead to heart murmurs. Some are more serious and are best treated with valve replacement.
Today, my husband, Les, 81, underwent such an operation.
Leslie’s experience with heart valve disease
How did he know there was a problem? Shortness of breath is a common sign, especially after exertion, and even though Les was an avid jogger, skier and swimmer, fatigue and difficulty breathing was setting in, but not to the point where he had swollen ankles, difficulty sleeping, or breathlessness even at rest. Shortness of breath usually means blood is backing up in the heart spurred on by activity. For some, chest pain is a factor, especially if the valve is not opening completely and the heart has to work hard to pump blood. Sometimes, even lightheadedness and fainting spells result and that’s what happened to Les, even with a total absence of pain.
While responding to an accident as a ski patroller last February, he passed out and was taken to the local hospital where the doctor, believing he had suffered a stroke, ordered a CAT scan of his head, but there was no evidence of any problem there. After an overnight stay for observation, he was released and came home. But he still felt overly fatigued, slept throughout the day, and lacked his usual energy.
At my insistence, he underwent an echocardiogram and sure enough, he needed a heart valve replacement wherein the doctor removes the damaged valve and replaces it with a mechanical one or one made from cow, pig or human heart tissue. Some valves eventually need to be replaced as they break down over time but a friend in Florida has had hers for 16 years and it’s fine. Les’s mechanical valve should last a lifetime.
For the next 10 days, Les will have to take it easy before resuming his activity, but his Trans Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR) operation can be watched Disney style on www.CoreValve.com or CoreValve Aortic Valve Replacement by Medtronic on YouTube, below.
Valve replacements are the most common minimally invasive procedures. The benefits are great—lower infection rates, less bleeding and trauma and shorter hospital stays and recovery time. Thus, I tell others to heed any warning signs and don’t fear valve replacement as Les’ heart problem could have been so much more serious. Now, I will have a happier spouse back home who can return to his ski patrolling, jogging and swimming without pain, panting or passing out, all thanks to a “valve job.”