Just like the gunk that can clog up an engine over time, calcium can clog up your heart. As you age, calcium deposits can build up on one of the four valves in the heart. This is especially true the aortic valve which opens and allows the heart to push blood to the body. That build up can keep the valve from fully opening, causing serious health problems.
Usually, the condition requires the valve to be replaced.
"Traditionally the only means of replacing the valve was through open heart surgery," said Our Lady of the Lake cardiologist Dr. Bill Helmke.
That was the case for Jim Lucius about nine months ago.
"I started having problems breathing, shortness of breath; I couldn't walk half a block," said Helmke.
The grandfather of seven is diabetic and has a history of heart problems. He has already undergone two open heart surgeries: once in the 1980's and again in 2002. Now 75 years old, surgery is no longer a good option for the patient.
Luckily, doctors have a new procedure called Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement or TAVR.
"Instead of doing full open heart surgery this is a procedure where there's a valve, the valve is replaced, but it is replaced through a catheter," said Helmke.
In this procedure, the new valve is mounted on a small balloon on a catheter. A small incision is made in the groin or the chest, and the balloon is threaded through an artery into the heart. When in place, the balloon inflates and the valve expands. A cuff around the valve is pressed into the artery walls, lodging it in place.
The TAVR procedure is much less invasive, and the risks are similar to surgery including a small risk of stroke, infection or bleeding. Patients see improvement almost immediately.
"The longer I was recovering, the better I was feeling," said Lucius. "What they can do today it is marvelous."
The TAVR procedure has only been approved in the U.S. for a few years, and Helmke says it is not an option for all patients. Only high risk patients who are not good candidates for surgery are eligible for the procedure.
Helmke explains that until more research is done, open heart surgery remains the best option for lower risk patients.
The TAVR procedure is covered by most insurances. For more information, click here.
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