From denial to happily ever after. One survivor's tale.Bernie Oakes managed heart disease for most of his adult life, and underwent triple bypass surgery in his late 70s. After getting a heart valve replacement at age 83, he was inspired to share his story and offer support to other heart patients as an American Heart Association Heart Valve Patient Ambassador
Oakes, of Traverse City, Michigan, got his first signal that something was wrong with his heart in his early 20s, while undergoing a physical for the Marine Corps. His blood pressure was high, but came down when the test was repeated after he lay down to relax.
“They figured it was just ‘white coat syndrome ’ and left it at that,” he said.
When his blood pressure didn’t come down during a second reading at a routine checkup a decade later, Oakes was put on medication. By his 40s, he was also on medication for high cholesterol , a condition he believes was fueled by sweet tooth he developed after quitting a decade-long smoking habit.
By the time Oakes was in his late 60s, is doctor noticed a heart murmur, a possible sign of a heart valve problem, and referred him to a cardiologist for closer monitoring of his heart health.
When he was 76, Oakes’ cardiologist found blockages and advised him to schedule bypass surgery.
Instead, he went to Yellowstone Park. There, after admiring the views after dinner, Oakes fainted and after consulting with a local doctor, flew home to undergo triple bypass surgery. He underwent cardiac rehab and then resumed his regular exercise routine.
“I was back to normal as far as I was concerned,” he said.
But in early 2014, while saying goodbye to a neighbor, Oakes passed out. While Oakes had expected his heart valve would one day need replacement, but now it could no longer be put off. He received a bovine heart valve and again had a smooth recovery.
“Had it not been for medical science advancements in the last 20 years, I wouldn’t be talking today,” said Oakes, now 85 . “I have a high quality of life and I feel great.”
He now volunteers at his local hospital and senior centers, sharing his experience with patients preparing for surgery and talking about heart health to local groups.
Although the last thing he wanted going into surgery was “some clown telling me not to worry,” Oakes says he has enjoyed meeting with patients and doing what he can to ease their concerns.
“They tell me they feel better and have more confidence and that’s the finest reward I can get,” he said.