A New Lease on Life
Reviewed by Heart and Vascular Institute.
A former college professor can’t wait to resume her travels abroad — thanks to a “life-changing” minimally-invasive alternative to open heart surgery offered at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute at UPMC Passavant.
When Ann Kemmerer was diagnosed in 2017 with aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve, her cardiologist told her she eventually would need a valve replacement. He also told her about the transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) — a promising, new minimally-invasive procedure that was still in clinical trial.
“I was interested right away. It sounded much more appealing than open heart surgery,” says Ann, now 72. “I said ‘put me in line!’ I just hoped that by the time I needed the valve replacement, it would be available for me.”
Ironically, her husband Bill, now 74, would have the TAVR surgery before Ann. After suffering a massive heart attack, Bill developed serious problems with his aortic valve. The retired Grove City Area School District psychologist underwent the TAVR procedure in June 2020 at UPMC Shadyside hospital.
“It was amazing to see the difference. It was like he was rejuvenated,” says Ann, a retired Slippery Rock University professor. “After his heart attack, his prognosis was grim. Seeing how quickly he bounced back from the TAVR was very reassuring.”
Two months after Bill’s surgery, Ann discovered she had a large, suspicious mass on her kidney. Her urologist wanted to do immediate surgery, but her cardiologist said she needed her weakened aortic valve replaced before undergoing general anesthesia. In September 2020, she underwent the TAVR procedure at UPMC Passavant–McCandless under the care of David West, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon and director of cardiac surgery at the hospital.
An Innovative Solution
Aortic stenosis is a common heart ailment in older adults caused by a buildup of calcium. Since the aortic valve can’t open wide enough, the heart has to work harder to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, and fainting. It can lead to heart failure and death.
There is no treatment for this condition other than replacing the valve. Until recently, the only option was open heart surgery — a major operation requiring a large incision and the heart to be stopped.
In contrast, the TAVR procedure uses just a small incision in the groin where the new valve is inserted with a catheter and expanded with a balloon — and the heart is never stopped.
Most patient spend one to two days in the hospital compared to a five-day stay after open heart surgery. TAVR benefits include less anesthesia, a shorter hospital stay, and a faster recovery compared to open heart surgery, says Dr. West.
Like her husband, Ann was up and walking just a few hours after the TAVR procedure. She was back home two days later.
“I felt terrific as soon as I woke up,” says Ann. “It is truly a life-changing procedure. All of a sudden, you can do things again. You don’t have anything holding you back.”
Bill, an active outdoorsman, quickly resumed hunting, fishing, hiking, landscaping, and wood cutting after his TAVR procedure.
Ann had her kidney removed three weeks after the TAVR. A biopsy showed the mass was benign. She’s now back to gardening and long walks and looks forward to resuming her world travels once the pandemic is under control. She already has a trip to Morocco planned for 2022.
“I’m so thrilled with the results of my surgery. I can travel again and not worry about my heart,” says Ann. “It’s like getting a new lease on life!”
Ann's treatment and results may not be representative of similar cases.
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About the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine.