At 83 years of age, Merna Nielsen felt that her days were numbered. She sadly thought that she didn’t have much more time to spend with her family, including 16 great-grandchildren. Merna ran out of breath after only walking a few feet. She was no longer able to do activities she loved or even help out with simple tasks like picking up a few groceries.
“I felt bad; I couldn’t get my breath,” explained Merna. “I couldn’t even go out and get the mail without stopping. It got so I couldn’t sweep my floor.”
A visit to her primary care physician led to a consultation with a cardiovascular surgeon at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. Dr. Gil Schorlemmer quickly diagnosed Merna with severe aortic stenosis. Typically, patients with this condition undergo open heart surgery to replace the diseased heart valve. However, that option was not possible for Merna; she had significant damage in her chest due to previous radiation treatment for cancer. The gold standard, traditional approach was too risky for her.
Fortunately for Merna, St. Mark’s is one of only three hospitals in Utah and a small number of hospitals nationwide offering a newer, advanced procedure for patients who need a heart valve replacement but are not good candidates for traditional treatment. It’s called a Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement. Dr. Schorlemmer and his colleague, Dr. Shreekanth Karwande, recently took it upon themselves to become fully trained in this life-saving procedure – and now offer it to patients in the Salt Lake area.
“TAVR is a tremendous step forward in aortic valve disease treatment nationwide,” said Steve Bateman, CEO at St. Mark’s Hospital. “Dr. Karwande and Dr. Schorlemmer led the effort to bring this advanced procedure to our hospital, which significantly expanded its availability in Utah. It was an enormous undertaking that is benefiting a growing number of patients who otherwise have no other options.”
Last April, Dr. Schorlemmer performed the TAVR procedure on Merna. She was released from St. Mark’s Hospital three days later, and is now fully recovered. She no longer has to continually stop to catch her breath. She is quick to tell people to “just do it” if they’re considering the same procedure.
“It’s unreal the difference in her,” her husband Ray Nielsen said. “Now I can’t keep up with her when we go to the store.”
Following the TAVR procedure, patients feel minimal-to-no pain and most experience a more rapid recovery than they would from a traditional, open-heart valve replacement. Nationwide, 46 percent of patients return to work or resume normal activities within four weeks; 71 percent within eight weeks. In comparison, it takes an average of 10 weeks to return to normal activity after an open chest procedure. Most important, the risk of heart failure and imminent death are significantly reduced.
“Pardon me for using the phrase, but it’s downright amazing,” Dr. Schorlemmer said. “There’s no other word I can think of to describe it.”