Published on January 28, 2013

A grandmother restores her heart health at Mercy Fitzgerald 

Mary SpanoMary Spano is accustomed to vigorous exercise.

A former elementary school educator, the 65-year-old Drexel Hill resident does water aerobics and enjoys outdoor adventures with her two grandchildren.

But one day last summer, Mary’s active lifestyle was abruptly cut short. She was wading briskly across the pool for exercise when she experienced a sudden tightness in her jaw, overwhelming fatigue and severe shortness of breath. Having struggled with asthma, Mary knew her breathing problems were a sign of something much more severe.

“I had been exercising like this for years and all of a sudden I just couldn’t do what I had done before,” she recalls.

Taking Action

Mary went to see John Blannett, MD, a cardiologist at Mercy Fitzgerald, who had been carefully monitoring her heart health for nearly a decade after she first showed signs of high blood pressure and a heart murmur. Dr. Blannett recommended that she consider surgery for aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the heart valve through which all blood flows to the rest of the body.

A team of cardiac specialists performed diagnostic tests to visualize Mary’s heart arteries, confirming severe narrowing of the aortic valve. Dr. Blannett then referred Mary to Steven Weiss, MD, director of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, for repair or replacement of the valve.

In good hands

Mary knew she was in experienced hands. Dr. Weiss received his training at the Cleveland Clinic and has performed valve surgery for 24 years in Philadelphia. At Mercy Fitzgerald’s Cardiac Valve Clinic, he heads a highly specialized medical team that focuses its clinical expertise on fixing heart valve conditions.

“Dr. Weiss was very, very easy to talk to and he explained things well,” says Mary. “He and his team were never too busy to answer my questions.” Dr. Weiss performed minimally invasive aortic valve replacement surgery, an advanced procedure in which the aortic valve is replaced through a 3-inch incision. The procedure relieved the obstruction of blood flow in Mary’s aortic valve, allowing her heart to pump normally.

“Mary’s heart was working harder and harder to pump the blood in a forward direction,” says Dr. Weiss. “When I saw her she was starting to experience heart failure. This was immediately and completely relieved by the surgery. She can expect a full recovery and to live a normal life—as if she didn’t have valve disease.”

Be Proactive

Although aortic stenosis can progress slowly without causing problems, once symptoms occur, the disease has a high mortality rate. If you have shortness of breath, tightness or pain in your chest or jaw, feel faint, heart palpitations or fatigue when exercising, Dr. Weiss recommends seeing your doctor immediately.

“When severe aortic stenosis becomes symptomatic, it becomes a very deadly disease,” says Dr. Weiss. The good news, he says, is that minimally invasive procedures have significantly reduced the risks of valve surgery and have eased the recovery. “Valve replacement completely terminates the disease and restores patients’ longevity,” he says.

Mary is back to gardening and playing with her grandchildren. She looks forward to starting physical therapy at Mercy Fitzgerald so she can climb hills with her grandchildren again soon. “I feel like I can do anything I need to,” she says.