Published on February 06, 2012

Back in the game after heart surgery

Heart valve replacement returns Judy Mitchell to an active life

Judy MitchellCongestive heart failure and a heart murmur might slow most people down, but when Judy Mitchell was diagnosed with these conditions in July 2010, she didn’t miss a beat—at first. The 73-year-old continued her habits of bike riding, three-mile walks and skating (roller and ice).

“After I was diagnosed, I really felt like I had no problem,” she explains. “Although I had a few dizzy spells, I blamed low blood sugar.”

But in October of 2011, things changed. “I suddenly developed swelling in my arms and legs,” recalls Judy. “It wasn’t painful, but it was scary.” Diuretics worked temporarily, but the swelling returned and Judy also experienced shortness of breath.

Judy’s cardiologist determined that her heart health had deteriorated. Some heart valves were malfunctioning, and she had blockages in the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. Judy needed heart valve surgery, and she needed it soon.

Complex Heart Surgery in a Safe Environment

Fortunately for Judy, she came under the care of Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital’s excellent cardiothoracic surgery team. Her surgeon is Steven J. Weiss, MD, director, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Mercy Fitzgerald. “Judy needed extensive surgical work,” explains Dr. Weiss. “Three of her four heart valves were repaired or replaced, and we performed a coronary bypass. In years past, these procedures could only be performed at universities, but now we can handle them at community hospitals like Mercy Fitzgerald.”

Judy had a spectacular outcome. “She went from perhaps having a few weeks to live to having the life expectancy of someone who has never had heart problems,” says Dr. Weiss. “Best of all, she’s living that life feeling better than she has in a while.”

Heart Disease Myths

According to Dr. Weiss, for every patient like Judy, there are at least 10 people in our community who are miserably ill from a valve problem that is unrecognized or undertreated. This is often due to misperceptions about aging, he says.

The patient and family might attribute the fatigue, fainting, shortness of breath and other symptoms of valve failure to old age. “Shortness of breath after one flight of stairs or almost fainting with exertion is never just old age,” emphasizes Dr. Weiss, “and it may be an easily correctable heart problem.”

Sometimes the patient, family and even the family doctor believe the patient is too frail for surgery. “The truth is, almost no one who is sick because of defective heart valves is too sick for surgery, because the safety of valve surgery has dramatically increased in the past few years,” says Dr. Weiss. “The message is this: If you have a murmur or symptoms, get evaluated by a heart specialist who can diagnose the problem and determine an appropriate treatment plan.”

Exceptional Care

Judy is now well on her way to recovery, and is steadily returning to walking and a healthy exercise routine.

“The care at Mercy Fitzgerald was exceptional,” says Judy. “If I had to be at any hospital, I’d go to Mercy Fitzgerald. From the doctors to the maintenance people, everyone was fantastic. The care and concern were genuine, truly from their hearts.”