A new heart procedure offers hope to patients

03/01/2014 10:37 AM

03/02/2014 8:01 AM

For south-central Kansans Brenda Schawe and Jene Hanes, a new minimally invasive heart procedure being offered in Wichita has literally changed their lives.

At 53 years old, cancer survivor Schawe couldn’t make it up a flight of stairs without getting worn out and feeling chest discomfort. Two weeks after her surgery, Schawe was working out in an aerobics class.

Hanes’ heart condition had left the 79-year-old Garden City resident wheelchair bound and practically on death’s door, according to her son, Sam. Within a month of her surgery, Hanes took a trip to see family in Amarillo, without using any type of walking device.

Both women suffered from aortic valve stenosis – when the heart’s aortic valve narrows and doesn’t open fully. The narrowing reduces blood flow from the heart into the aorta and to the rest of the body. It’s a serious condition that can weaken the heart. Sometimes medication can control the condition, while more serious cases require open heart surgery to replace the valve. But for some patients – because of age or medical history – open heart surgery is far more risky than living with the condition.

Schawe and Hanes were among the first patients to benefit from a new procedure called transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR, now being offered in Wichita.

After cutting a small hole in a blood vessel in the leg, the physician uses a balloon catheter to push the folded device – made of cow tissue stitched inside an expandable stainless steel stent – to the heart, where the valve is expanded. The TAVR starts to work immediately, working just like a normal, healthy valve.

Cardiologists in Wichita say the TAVR therapy, which was initially approved by the FDA in November 2011, is offering new hope to Kansas patients who had limited options to treat their condition. Until the procedure started being offered in Wichita last fall, patients had to travel to medical centers elsewhere if they wanted this cutting-edge procedure.

“These are people who really had no other options and who would have been left to die,” said Bassem Chehab, structural cardiologist with Cardiovascular Consultants of Kansas and medical director of Via Christi Health’s structural heart program.

“Now they’re getting a longer return on their quality of life,” said cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon Brett Grizzell.

“This is a game changer,” said Omar Ali, a structural cardiologist with Heartland Cardiology and medical director of Wesley Medical Center’s structural heart program.

Open heart surgery was out of the question for Schawe, who had undergone intense radiation nearly 30 years ago to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The radiation had calcified not only her aortic valve over the years, but her aorta, too, leaving it as fragile as a china plate, doctors told her.

“This was the way to go,” said Schawe, about the minimally invasive TAVR procedure she underwent Jan. 22 at Wesley Medical Center. Before her surgery, doctors had told her to limit her physical activity and to not do anything that would cause her heart to work too hard.

Between November and mid-February, 10 patients had undergone the procedure at Wesley, according to Ali.

Hanes was the first of 11 patients who have received the TAVR procedure at Via Christi Health between mid-October and mid-February, according to Chehab. Before she underwent the procedure Oct. 17, doctors had told her family she probably wouldn’t live until Christmas, said Sam Hanes.

While it’s significantly less invasive than open heart surgery, the TAVR procedure still carries some risk. Less than 10 percent of patients nationally suffer TAVR-related risks following surgery, according to some cardiologists.

According to Via Christi officials, all 11 patients were treated successfully with no TAVR-related incidents.

Ali, the medical director of Wesley’s program, said he couldn’t talk about the specifics of the 10 cases at that hospital, “but our technical outcomes have all been good.”

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