Lowell Chase – My Heart Valve Surgery Experience
Lowell Chase is 44 years old and lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn with his wife Emily, daughter Lily and son Alden. Lowell underwent an aortic valve replacement November 2010 and shares his story to help others navigate this challenging process. He wrote this blog in honor of Valve Disease Day, February 22.
It was 2006, and I was living in New York City. My (now) wife and I were planning our wedding for the fall, and life was good. I was about a year into a new job and took advantage of the free annual physical under my health plan. The doctor was a nice man, who I only met once – the day of the physical. But he likely saved my life.
After the exam, the doctor asked me how long I had a heart murmur. My response was, “I don’t have a heart murmur.” He recommended I follow up with a cardiologist for further testing. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was a healthy, 29 year old – 6’ 5” and 185 lbs; a former member of the Brown University crew team, and felt invincible. What was a little heart murmur. When I saw my parents a few weeks later, I mentioned the visit to my mother. She had a serious look on her face and asked me to please make a follow up appointment. Again, I laughed it off, but reluctantly made that appointment after also sharing the news with my wife.
That was when I met Dr. S, who would guide me through the next four years of anxious visits and testing until my eventual aortic valve replacement surgery in 2010. From my first appointment, he was concerned. I was diagnosed with moderate to severe aortic regurgitation and high blood pressure; another surprise. I didn’t understand everything I was being told, but started to realize this was serious. Dr. S prescribed 2 different medications to reduce my blood pressure and stabilize my condition. While we didn’t need to take immediate action such as heart surgery, there would be additional testing and to better understand the severity of my condition. An echocardiogram revealed that my heart was enlarged and several valves were leaking. Dr. S gave me the choice to work with him, in order to monitor how fast my condition was deteriorating. He also educated me on the process and how new technologies were constantly improving; such as valve replacement by catheter in the leg.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have that much time. By September 2010, Dr. S advised that my heart had continued to enlarge, to the point where permanent damage would be done if we did not replace the aortic valve immediately. That was an unsettling conversation, even more so because my wife had given birth to our first child who was only 4 months old. The last thing I wanted to do was give my wife something else to worry about. Also, keep in mind that I felt perfectly fine. This was a true leap of faith to agree to let someone cut open my chest, when nothing seemed wrong and I continued to feel well.
Luckily, being in NYC gave us some great options for cardiothoracic surgeons and I met one of the best in Dr. AG, who seemed to embody Superman. He was the one. Another decision – what kind of valve do I want? Bovine or mechanical? Mechanical would last longer, but did I really want to be on a blood thinner the rest of my life? I went with bovine, knowing that this would not be my last surgery, as prosthetic valves only lasted 10 to 20 years tops.
The surgery went as well as could have been expected, with minimal complications. But my wife was not prepared for seeing me intubated or my weakened state. I was fortunate to have the minimally invasive procedure, which only required a 5-inch incision to my chest cavity, reconnected with wires that remain in my chest to this day. This helped with my overall recovery, and I was out of the hospital in 4 days and back to work after 2 months. Much of that time was a blur and I continue to experience some blanks in my memory which I attribute to the open-heart surgery. But I was one of the lucky ones. If that kind doctor did not find the heart murmur, my enlarged heart may not have been saved in time. This past November 2020 was the 10 year anniversary of my aortic valve replacement, which was a time to celebrate. I want to help others going through this process and raise awareness for other young people who may have a life-threatening heart condition but might not yet know it.
Lowell J. Chase