Patient breathes ‘100 percent better’ after TAVR procedure

Minimally invasive procedure offers an alternative to open-heart surgery

Older man in glasses and plaid shirt sits in chair and smiles.

If you had met Henry Richter a couple of months ago, he would tell you that life was exhausting, literally. He found himself winded after he would go up the stairs and put on his shoes.

“I wasn’t going to be able to live the way my breathing was. I was worried about it,” he said.

Today, the 88-year-old is able to walk up the stairs in his home in Bismarck, North Dakota, much easier and he isn’t out of breath when he reaches the top.

“If you can’t live a normal life you’ve got to do something,” Richter said.

That’s exactly what Richter did. He had a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, also known as TAVR. The procedure is for patients with severe aortic stenosis and repairs the damaged aortic valve.

Learn more: Heart treatment at Sanford Health

“The aortic valve sits between the left ventricle — the main pumping chamber — and the aorta which is the big blood vessel that carries the blood to the rest of the body,” said Dr. Dragos Balf, an interventional cardiologist at Sanford Health in Bismarck. “When the aortic valve gets very narrow with severe aortic valve stenosis, there is a blockage of the blood and the blood cannot get out of the heart.”

Alternative to open-heart surgery

For people diagnosed with aortic stenosis, options to mend the weakened heart valve used to be slim. In fact, research shows patients with severe aortic stenosis do not survive more than an average of two years after the onset of symptoms if they do not have surgery.

The only other way to get rid of the blockage is by open-heart surgery. Dr. Balf says because of Richter’s age, he would have had an increased risk of incomplete or prolonged recovery as well as possible complications from open-heart surgery.

With TAVR, the recovery time is generally much less.

“We see most of the times improvement in the first few days. And, given the fact that it isn’t an open-heart surgery, the recovery is also very fast,” said Dr. Balf.

Richter agrees. In addition to a speedy recovery, he’s noticed that putting his shoes on, getting dressed and making his bed is now much easier for him.

“I’m really happy with the results. And most of the people that see me can’t believe that I’m out and about already,” Richter said.

He even jokes about some of the hobbies he might take up now that he’s caught his breath.

“If I keep feeling as good as I am I might have to go to work again,” Richter said.

FAQ about TAVR

What is TAVR?

TAVR stands for transcatheter aortic valve replacement, a procedure safely treating patients with severe aortic stenosis without open heart surgery. A minimally invasive surgical procedure, TAVR repairs the damaged aortic valve. That’s one of two main valves on the left side of the heart regulating blood flow by opening and closing, allowing blood to flow throughout the body.

What is aortic stenosis?

Aortic stenosis is a condition caused by the heart’s crucial aortic valve narrowing or failing. Aortic stenosis results in reduced or blocked blood flow to the body. About 1.5 million people in the U.S. have aortic stenosis. Without an aortic valve replacement, 50% will not survive more than two years once symptoms begin.

How is TAVR performed?

A fellowship-trained team of cardiovascular surgeons, interventional cardiologists and anesthesiologists place a collapsible replacement heart valve into the body via a catheter through the femoral artery in the thigh. The catheter is gently threaded up to the heart. The valve is set in place of the old one without removing the damaged valve. Once the collapsible aortic heart valve is in place, the surgeon opens up the device, opening the aortic valve and providing the heart the oxygen and blood needed to pump more efficiently. The procedure is completed while the heart is still beating.

How is TAVR different from other procedures?

Usually, valve replacement requires an open-heart procedure with a sternotomy, surgically separating or opening the chest to perform the procedure. With TAVR, very small incisions are made in the femoral artery in the thigh, leaving all the chest bones in place.

Who qualifies for TAVR?

Some patients with severe aortic stenosis are not candidates for open-heart surgery. TAVR provides an opportunity for patients whose condition was previously untreatable to now receive treatment.

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