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A New Lease on Life

Betty Christensen has a heart for a lot of people in her family.

With more than 70 great-grandchildren, Betty often finds an invitation to a wedding or an announcement of a new baby in the family in her mailbox. But until this fall, her own ailing heart kept her from spending time with the family she loves.

“I just didn’t even have the energy to go out,” says the 79-year-old Volga woman. “I’d try to get out to the store to just pick up a card for someone and I couldn’t make it.”

A failing heart

After months of dropping stamina and difficulty breathing and even spells where she would suddenly pass out, Betty learned that her heart was failing due to aortic stenosis. A narrowing of the heart valve made it very difficult to push the blood through the heart that her body needed to function.

This condition, very common among patients older than 75, is generally caused by a gradual build up of calcification over the years. Doctors estimated that up to 1.5 million people in the United States have aortic stenosis.

But the problem for Betty, like many who suffer from this condition, was that she was in no shape to handle open-heart surgery to replace the valve. She successfully treated breast cancer with chemotherapy and radiation in 2008 and she has diabetes. Her body was just too frail to handle surgery.

“They didn’t give me more than a year unless I could repair my heart,” says Betty, relaxing in the chair where she spent so many hours unable to get around. “I looked at it this way. I said, ‘I’m going to get all my stuff in order in case I don’t make it through.’”

But Sanford Heart doctors had an option for Betty that could both save her life and give her the energy she had been lacking for so long.

Groundbreaking technology

A multidisciplinary team at Sanford Heart was getting ready to perform the new transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) procedure, replacing a failing heart valve with a collapsible artificial valve placed using a catheter inserted through the leg and threaded up to the heart. After meeting with interventional cardiologist Dr. Tom Stys, who had trained extensively in Europe to prepare to perform this new technology in Sioux Falls, she had no hesitation to sign on for the new procedure.

“I said ‘yes, I’ll be the first one!’” says Betty, with a laugh. “They knew what they were going to do and I trusted them to do it.”

Sanford Heart Hospital in Sioux Falls is the only health system in the region to perform the new transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) procedure, approved less than a year ago by the US Food and Drug Administration. Sanford is one of only about 100 heart programs in the country qualified to perform the procedure -- and the only hospital in North Dakota or South Dakota to do it.

The new technology, which is available only to patients who cannot have traditional open heart surgery, uses the new collapsible Edwards SAPIEN Valve is the only valve to receive FDA approval from the for the TAVR procedure. For patients like Betty, it is often the last opportunity for repair of the damaged valve. To see a video animation of the procedure, click here.

It turned out that Betty actually became the first patient in Sioux Falls to undergo the TAVR procedure on Sept. 10. Going into the hospital, she remembers saying goodbye to family members and waking up with more oxygen in her lungs than she’d had in years.

“I didn’t expect it to work that fast,” says Betty. “I could breathe right away. It was just wonderful!”

A return to life

Betty didn’t feel like she was recovering from surgery. She was able to walk around and didn’t have any pain or problems – it was the easiest hospital stay she’s ever experienced, she said.

She felt so good, that she made sure to have her daughter bring some candy into her hospital room so she could offer some to the many doctors who came to check on her progress those three days after the procedure. It was the least she could do, she says.

“I’d tell them they needed to take one for the road,” she says.

Betty, a retired nurse, says she still can’t believe how good she feels today. She can drive her car, shop and even clean her own home again.

“Who knew they would come up with something like this?” she says. “This is really the way to go.”

With a healthy heart and the energy she needs, Betty is looking forward to being able to attend family weddings and visit her newest great-grandchildren. Sanford Heart gave her back her life and has allowed her to reconnect with the people closest to her heart.

“I can get to see those new babies more,” says Betty. “Now there’s nothing I can’t do.”

To learn more about this new lifesaving procedure, go to heart.sanfordhealth.org or call Sanford Heart Hospital at (605) 312-2200.

Posted Date: April 2013