Inside the Operating Room: Ken Jefferson Shares His Story
Here is a reality check for health conscious baby-boomers: even among those in good shape, at least 1 in 3 will eventually develop heart problems.
That hit close to home last summer for NBC29 sunrise anchor Ken Jefferson, who had to undergo open heart surgery to replace a defective aorta valve.
Ken takes us through the procedure and the recovery process.
Symptoms of Trouble
The aorta is the body's largest artery extending from the left ventricle at the top of the heart; it sends oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. But, when it does not work:
"The classic symptoms are breathlessness, or a change in the ability to do things, chest pain or angina and the last thing is passing out," says Dr. Tim Williams with Cardiac Associates of Charlottesville at Martha Jefferson Hospital.
If left untreated, you could die. "Once you start getting symptoms, 80 percent of the people are usually dead within a year," comments Dr. Irving Kron, a cardiothoracic surgeon for the University of Virginia Heart and Vascular Center.
Open Heart Surgery
With time running out, on August 1, I checked in to UVA's Heart and Vascular Center for open heart surgery.
Dr. Irvin Kron and his surgical team split open my chest and broke the sternum. Using a heart and lung bypass unit, they cooled the heart down and stopped it.
They cut into the aorta artery, removed the defective valve and replaced it with the valve of either a cow, a pig, or with a man-made mechanical valve. Mine was replaced with the valve of a cow.
The operation lasted 3-4 hours, followed by another couple of hours in an intensive care unit.
It's an operation that Dr. Kron will perform more than 200 times a year. Nationwide each year, there are nearly 100,000 valve replacement surgeries. Other high-profile patients include Robin Williams, Arnold Swartzenegger and Barbara Walters.
Road to Recovery
After the first stage, the recovery is fast. Within a day, I was out of bed and walking. Four days later, I was discharged from UVA.
"People are in the hospital now for three or four days. It used to be they'd be in the hospital for two weeks, says Dr. Kron.
Recovery at home takes about six weeks - six long weeks of no lifting, no driving, no fun. The road to recovery is often a road, a track or a treadmill. Following doctor's orders, once you're able to, you walk - first around the house, then around the block.
Six weeks later, I started working out in a high-tech cardio rehab center at Martha Jefferson Hospital. There, a team of personal trainers and registered nurses used wireless monitors to keep track of my heart as I went through a prescribed exercise routine of treadmills, elliptical and rowing machines.
I owe my life to Dr. Williams and Dr. Kron and to the diligent work of a battery of health care professionals at two great hospitals in one very fortunate community. Their work gives many of us a new chance to keep our dreams alive. To them I say thanks, and I mean that from the top of my heart.
For more information about heart surgery, go to the American Heart Association website at www.heart.org.