New option to treat heart valve problem

Aortic stenosis is one of the most common and most serious heart valve problems. It was recently treated with major open heart surgery, but now a quick, less invasive procedure is available and is being tested on younger patients at Memorial Hermann in Houston for the first time.

We met up there with patient Steve Otis, who has been closely monitored by a cardiologist for decades.

"I've had a heart murmur for 20-30 years and have gone to cardiologist two or three times a year for all that time and they have monitored it.  They've done the tests to see if there is any progression in the problem," says Steve.

Steve thought he would eventually have to undergo open-heart surgery.

That used to be the standard care for his heart valve problem, called aortic stenosis. His cardiologist, Dr. Richard Smalling, who is an interventional cardiologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute and James D. Woods Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Medicine and Director of interventional cardiovascular medicine at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, explains the problem.

"We're all born with four valves in our heart.  One of them is an outlet valve - the main pumping chamber of the heart, called the aortic valve.  Over the years, in some people, this aortic valve, a check valve that keeps the blood flowing up to the brain and to the rest of the body, can become damaged," explains Dr. Smalling.

He says that can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, or even sudden death. He says once the aortic valve starts causing problems, the risk of dying suddenly is 50 percent within a year, so then it needs to be corrected quickly. 

The typical treatment has been open heart surgery.

"They put you to sleep, they make a big incision in the middle of your chest, open the breast bone, stop your heart, put you on a heart-lung machine, open up the aorta, cut out the old valve, sew in the new valve, close everything up, and let you recover.  It's usually at least a week in the hospital," says Dr. Smalling.  Then he goes on to say after that, patients can't drive for two months, they often feel too fatigued to function, and some never bounce back.  However, a major advancement in medicine means a much less invasive procedure is now available to put a valve inside the diseased valve, using a mesh device.

"This procedure evolved over time and now we can take patients who are awake, give them a little happy medicine, numb them in the groin area where we put in catheters, and replace their valve while they're awake and they go home in one or two days," exclaims Dr. Smalling.

"I had always feared of cracking your chest - that's huge and the recovery time is an extended period of time. this was nothing like that. The pain was minimal and I was in and out of hospital in a day and a half and I was awake during the procedure, but relaxed by medications," explains Steve.      
This latest procedure has been reserved for people in their 70's, 80's, and 90's, because their age put them at high risk of not surviving open heart surgery, but now Memorial Hermann is offering it to younger patients, like Steve, through a new trial, with a procedure called TAVR, or Transcatheter aortic valve replacement.

Steve says he feels like being active again and has been healing through a cardiac rehab program.  He tells us, he and his wife are thankful he got the chance for this life-changing procedure.

The study is still accepting qualified participants. Call 713-500-8828 for more information.