Advanced Heart Murmur Resolved with Successful Mitral Heart Valve Repair: Kurt’s Story

Who doesn’t know somebody who has an adult heart murmur? For most of my life, if I mentioned my heart murmur, someone else in the group also had one. It was a matter for light conversation, not a serious subject — like talking to a person who drives the same make of car that I have.

Unlike most of these people, however, my heart murmur (also known as a prolapsed mitral valve) was on course to kill me. At the age of 52, my mitral valve was coming undone. It was leaking severely, but like some other people with this condition, I was asymptomatic. I had no symptoms of heart disease. Plus, I was a slender guy who ate well and exercised three times a week. I considered myself healthier than most people my age.

During a routine examination, the trained ear of my doctor set me on a whirlwind course resulting in an open-heart surgery procedure over just a few weeks. Dr. Mario Martinez, an internist, listened through his stethoscope for only a few seconds and told me I needed to see a cardiologist. I remember saying to him, "Please don’t sugarcoat it."

I wanted his best evaluation of my condition, and I got it. He asked me to turn my head to the side, and he showed me how my jugular veins were slightly expanded along my neck, a likely result of the backed-up flow from the heart. He said he believed I would need a new or repaired heart valve some day, and in fact, major surgery could be necessary very soon.

Visits to a cardiologist soon proved it all to be accurate. I went to Houston Methodist, where Dr. Gerald Lawrie performs robotic heart surgery using the da Vinci Robot. I was particularly fortunate to have Dr. Lawrie perform my surgery because he invented the mitral heart valve repair procedure known around the world as The American Correction.

For the robotic heart surgery, Dr. Lawrie inserted tiny tubes into my chest. One held the heart open, another carried the camera and others carried tiny tools that perform the incisions, stitching and other tasks. My failing connective tissue was replaced by tough threads that will last beyond my lifetime.

You may have heard the term, minimally invasive. This seems like an understatement for robotic heart surgery. My father had open-heart surgery in 2001. His sternum was sawed open and re-attached afterward. He slept sitting up for three months. In my case, I was able to walk around the hospital corridors after three days. I had the okay to drive after two weeks, and I’ll never forget the 16th day after surgery — I went fishing at the beach in Corpus Christi. Even this soon after heart surgery, I could go shirtless without attracting a second glance.

More important than appearance, of course, is my future health. Without the robot, many people get something other than repair — replacement. I did not want a replaced mitral valve if I could have a repaired one. The mitral valve is vastly more complex than the aortic valve, and replacement is often less effective than repair and requires the use of blood thinners for life following the surgery. Now, I only have to take low-dose aspirin. That’s all.

I spoke with Dr. Lawrie after the surgery. He confirmed the echocardiograms show I have gone from severe leakage to no leakage. The defining moment of the entire experience occurred next. I asked him what would likely happen if I had left my heart untreated.

"Fatal in two to three years," he said.

I wasn’t expecting that. Even after I had seen the images of my flapping, distorted valve, I still thought of myself as the basically healthy guy with good blood pressure, cholesterol levels, slender build, and good diet and exercise. I thought I would hear something like the condition would have gradually worsened into my 60s and 70s. But no. Fatal — in my mid-50s.

There, in a nutshell, is my experience. Instead of a fatal heart condition, I now have a corrected heart that is expected to provide significantly more energy than I had before the operation. And recovery in a fraction of the normal time.

Some people have all the luck. That would be me.

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