Facing Open Heart Surgery with Confidence

Craig_FalkenthalBy Craig Falkenthal

Knowing my family history with heart disease allowed me to take control of my health. At my annual physical two years ago, I told my doctor about my 81-year-old mother’s recent aortic valve replacement. I explained that she had a congenital aortic bicuspid valve, and I have aunts and uncles who had mitral valve prolapse issues. I already knew I had a heart murmur, but my doctor suggested that I see a cardiologist to rule out any additional issues, given my family history.

I am an extremely healthy guy with a lot of energy. I had worked for the same employer for 23 years and never took a sick day. So I wasn’t too worried about getting checked out.

However, an echocardiogram showed that I had a congenital bicuspid aortic valve, just like my mother. It was a complete shock, especially because I felt terrific. My local cardiologist said that mine had progressed into aortic stenosis, where my aortic valve was not fully opening and was decreasing blood flow from my heart. She told me that open heart surgery was a matter of when not if.

I felt like I had been punched in the face. I couldn’t believe I needed open heart surgery. The plan was for me to get an echocardiogram annually to monitor the progress and we’d do the surgery when it became necessary. I was expecting to go another 10 to 15 years. But my heart had other ideas. Just two years later, my cardiologist said it was time.

That’s when I came to Rush University Medical Center for a second opinion. Here I met cardiac surgeon Robert March, MD, and cardiologist R. Jeffrey Snell, MD. My wife and I asked Dr. March a million questions and he was wonderful, answering every question patiently. The biggest blow, however, was when he told me that I also had a two-inch aneurysm on my ascending aorta — and it was critical. If I did nothing, I had a one in 20 chance of an immediate rupture, which would likely be fatal. And if that didn’t happen, I would only have three to five years left to live. With that information it was really easy making the decision to do the surgery. I knew this was going to save my life.

My surgery was set for June 21, 2012. I was still feeling fine until April when the symptoms came on really strong. It felt like an elephant was lying on my chest every time I got up and walked just 100 feet. I had pains shooting down my neck and through both arms, and I was short of breath.

I wanted to feel better and move forward, so I was actually looking forward to open heart surgery. I am a naturally positive person, and I was confident in Dr. March. My surgery went perfectly. The next day I was out of bed having my first meal when I realized I didn’t have an elephant on my chest anymore. All of the pains in my arms and neck were gone too. It was amazing.

I was in the hospital for nine days and I can honestly say it was a wonderful experience. The people at Rush — from the folks who cleaned my room to the nurses and doctors — were the greatest caregivers. Everyone was so professional and genuine in their care. Even the facility itself was amazing. The view from my room in the Tower was incredible. Looking out and marveling at this beautiful city absolutely helped me stay positive through my recovery.

I eased back into activity when I got home. Now six months later, I am running three miles every day and I feel fantastic. My heart is 100 percent fixed. You don’t get much more major than open heart surgery. But I had a tremendous amount of trust in the caregivers at Rush. I just let go and put all my faith in them. And they didn’t let me down. They saved my life.

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