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‘The relief was immediate.’ Man’s life back on track after TAVR heart procedure

By Elizabeth Katona, Editorial Contributor

Richard Smith recalls sitting on the edge of his bathtub and gasping for air as the shower kept running.

“I couldn’t hold my hands up long enough to wash my hair,” said Smith, who had been diagnosed years earlier with aortic stenosis, a type of heart valve disease.

But last year, his symptoms got worse. Smith, 64, spent 10 days in the hospital for pneumonia.

Then he had to cancel a work trip.

A salesman for 30 years, Smith travels to trade shows and speaks at conventions. In June, he was booked as a speaker and preparing to leave. But as the departure date approached, he knew he had to tell his boss he didn’t have the strength and stamina to push through.

“I just can’t do it,” he recalled saying.

After another hospital stay, this time for fluid in his lung cavity, Smith’s cardiologist told him he needed a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR.

“It was a real easy choice for me,” Smith said. “I was suffering miserably.”

A Lethal Condition

Smith was referred to Bayfront Health Medical Group. The Bayfront Health heart team has performed more than 300 TAVR procedures.

Aortic stenosis occurs when the aortic valve does not open properly because of thickening, causing reduced blood flow out of the heart to the rest of the body, said Dr. F. Curtis Bryan, a board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon with Bayfront Health Medical Group Cardiology. Symptoms can include chest pain, shortness of breath, passing out and rapid heartbeat.

Richard Smith

“All the blood must pass through the aortic valve,” he said.

When blood flow diminishes, people can faint or suffer heart attacks. Over time, heart function can also weaken and lead to congestive heart failure, causing shortness of breath and leg swelling. Many people don’t know they have the condition, thinking instead that their symptoms are just signs of aging.

If left untreated, aortic stenosis can lead to death in a just a few years.

The condition is a common complication of radiation that often shows up decades later, and Smith’s aortic stenosis likely was caused by radiation that he had in 1987 for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The radiation left Smith with “hostile chest,” which meant he was not a candidate for open-heart surgery, commonly used to replace valves.

 ‘Transformational Procedure’

A minimally invasive procedure, TAVR has been performed for 20 years and involves replacing the deteriorating valve with a new one that is made from medical-grade bovine or porcine tissue. In most cases, a small catheter is inserted up through the groin and to the heart via blood vessels. The groin insertion allows for the quickest recovery, although in some instances the insertion is done in other areas.

TAVR has an over 90 percent success rate, which is on par with open-heart surgery. The complication rate for TAVR is less than 5 percent.

“TAVR is truly a transformational procedure,” Dr. Bryan said. “The procedure is much less invasive, allowing the patient to gain the benefits of improved survival and quality of life with less stress upon their bodies.”

‘I Haven’t Looked Back’

To Smith, the most remarkable part of the process was the speed and immediate relief.

I will never take walking freely or a deep breath for granted. – Richard Smith

“I went in early in the morning, it was done by noon and then I had to lay on my back for four hours,” he said. “I spent most of the rest of the day walking the floors of the hospital.”

Smith was discharged by noon the next day.

“I haven’t looked back,” he said. “Without TAVR, I would probably not be able to speak right now. I would not be able to breathe well enough to have a conversation.”

Just two months later, Smith traveled for a business event and is back to doing things he loves, like playing guitar. And in March, he is set to go to England for work.

Smith, who has been married to his wife, Laura, for 39 years, and has four adult children and nine grandchildren, is now living his best life.

“I will never take walking freely or a deep breath for granted,” Smith said.

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