One of my friends is in pretty impressive condition but when you know what he has gone through, the condition he is in is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Here is the story:
About seven years ago, I was diagnosed with severe mitral valve regurgitation. This means that my mitral valve, the most important of the four valves in the heart, was not closing properly and a significant amount of blood was flowing backwards into the left atrium. This, in turn, forced the heart to work harder and was causing it to enlarge. If left untreated, this would have eventually led to congestive heart failure and an early death. So, basically, I had only one choice: open-heart surgery.
Luckily, my cardiologist had trained at the Mayo Clinic, the finest hospital in the United States, and he referred me to the best heart surgeon at that hospital. While many surgeons treat leaky mitral valves by replacing them with artificial valves, my surgeon used a technique whereby he fixed my native valve by carefully trimming the excess tissue and inserting a ring around the valve to prevent it from enlarging. By repairing rather than replacing the valve, my surgeon saved me from a lifetime of taking blood thinners (which pose a definite risk of stroke and other complications).
I was 39 at the time of my surgery and I was in excellent physical condition, so I was not particularly worried about whether or not I could bear the surgery. And I had an insurance policy that would cover the surgery, which cost a total of US$63,000. Needless to say, as an American, this was no trifling concern.
When I woke from the surgery in the step-down unit, I was literally a different person. You cannot have your sternum sawed down the middle and your heart stopped for 20 minutes without it having some deep effect on your being, even if you have no conscious recollection of it. I was up on my feet 24 hours after the surgery and I remember shuffling to the bathroom in my room and looking at myself. I had a strip of tape down the middle of my chest. And I felt like I had been run over by a Mack truck. But, I was alive.
I stayed in the hospital for four days and then I was released to a nearby hotel. I remember stepping out of the door of the hospital for the first time. It was fall and the cold Minnesota wind seemed to blow right through me. I know right then that I was much, much weaker than I had been when I walked into the hospital.
But, when I got home, I started my rehabilitation right away. I went for walks in the woods, going a little further and a little faster each time. I also did breathing exercises with a device that the hospital had given me.
Then, exactly one month to the day after my surgery, I climbed a small 350-meter mountain near my house that I used to climb every day before my surgery. I climbed at a snail’s pace and I stopped frequently for rests, but I made it. For me, that marked a major step in my recovery. From that point on, I stopped thinking of myself as an invalid and started to think of myself as a normal person.
Slowly I stepped up my workouts, adding swimming and biking to my usual hiking routine. While I feel that I have lost about 10% of my former aerobic capacity, most likely due to deformation of the left ventricle that occurred prior to my surgery, I don’t feel any major deficits. And I take no medicine and require no special precautions in any activities.
Since my surgery, I have climbed 4095-meter Mt Kinabalu in Borneo, and I have crossed a 4700-meter pass in the Himalayas with a heavy pack. I felt no unusual strain and I feel like I could probably get up to 6000 meters given enough time to acclimatize.
In closing, my advice to anyone considering mitral valve surgery is this: Find the very best surgeon you can. Go for a repair rather than a replacement. And, whatever you do, don’t think for a moment that open-heart surgery means the end of your active sporting life. After open-heart surgery you can run marathons, climb mountains and live life to the fullest.