Heart Procedure Changes Lives in Northwest Georgia

Ronald Young was frustrated. The 86-year-old, part-time Rockmart resident found himself unable to go on the long walks with his wife he enjoyed. He also found daily activities left him far more fatigued and out of breath than he was accustomed.

Young felt perhaps old age had set in, and he would have to curtail his walking and activities.

Young’s age played a role in his condition, but so did his heart.

Young was suffering from Aortic Valve Stenosis. Aortic Valve Stenosis is a narrowing of the aortic valve opening in the heart commonly seen in people who are 70 to 80 years old or older.

“This is something that’s really not preventable,” Harbin Clinic Cardiologist Dr. Chas Jackson says. “This is more like rust. It’s just going to happen over time. If we all live long enough, we will get it.”

Common symptoms of Aortic Valve Stenosis include shortness of breath, angina, fatigue, feeling faint or passing out, rapid or irregular heartbeat and palpitations.

“Symptoms of aortic disease are commonly misunderstood by patients as the normal signs of aging, and they don’t get them checked out,” Dr. Jackson says.

This poses problems because research has shown that after the onset of symptoms patients with severe aortic stenosis have survival rates as low as 50 percent at two years and as low as 20 percent at five years without aortic valve replacement.

In the past, open-heart surgery was the only option for people suffering from the disease, but a new procedure, Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement, or TAVR for short, offers another solution.

The problem was only nine hospitals in Georgia performed TAVR procedures and none were located in Northwest Georgia. So local patients had to travel to Atlanta or farther to be able to get the procedure.

Enter a group of Harbin Clinic Cardiologists and Cardiothoracic Surgeons along with a motivated crew at Redmond Regional Medical Center. The two sides joined forces to bring this cutting-edge treatment to heart patients in Northwest Georgia.

“When Dr. Jackson and Dr. Chris Merritt approached us about doing TAVR at Redmond, we knew it was the right thing to do for the communities that we serve,” said John Quinlivan, Redmond Chief Executive Officer.  “TAVR is life-changing for those patients whose treatment options are very limited.  Redmond and Harbin have a rich history of continually elevating cardiac care in Northwest Georgia.  With our well-established heart surgery program, Redmond is proud to again partner with Harbin Clinic and offer this amazing advancement in cardiac care.  Right here in Rome, Georgia.”

Redmond invested more than $1.3 million into developing a state-of-the-art operating room suite capable of being used for both vascular surgery procedures as well as TAVR.

Harbin Clinic Cardiologists Doctor Jackson and Doctor Chris Merritt teamed with Redmond to help develop hospital protocol, a patient clinical pathway and other important necessary items to bring TAVR to Rome. The doctors also traveled to other facilities to get the necessary training to perform the procedures.

Why make the investment of time, money, people and training to do TAVR when open-heart surgery can also fix the issue?

The answer lies in what makes TAVR a cutting-edge procedure.

Open-heart surgery involves cutting the patient’s chest and opening the rib cage to allow access to the patient’s heart to fix the valve. The surgery requires a long recovery time.  Additionally, many patients are considered high-risk for the traditional open surgery.

“A lot of older patients with aortic valve stenosis aren’t good candidates for open-heart surgery,” Dr. Merritt says. “TAVR allows us to treat those patients and for them it’s truly a life-changing procedure.”

TAVR fixes the valve differently. A catheter with a balloon and valve mounted on top is inserted into the patient’s leg artery. The catheter is then guided to the heart where the balloon is inflated and the new valve is inserted.

“The patient usually gets up in a few hours and spends a few days in the hospital,” Dr. Merritt says. “With open-heart surgery, a patient spends at least five to seven days in the hospital, and the recovery process takes far longer.”

TAVR patients are typically up and moving around within a few hours and some are even able to leave the hospital as early as the day after the procedure.

Some people might shy away from being the first patient to have a new procedure performed on them, but Young had no second thoughts or reservations about it.

Young, who is retired and splits time between England and Rockmart, didn’t have any worries.

“I told Dr. Jackson, if you want me I will be the first (patient),” Young says. “I wasn’t scared of being first. I wanted it done. And I wanted it done at Redmond. I could have had it done in England on national insurance, but I chose to have it here.”

As with any new procedure there were some butterflies before hand.

“I probably spent more time with Ronald Young than I did with my family before the procedure,” Dr. Jackson says. “He was like my baby. I wanted to make sure everything went great for him.”

The big day came on April 6, 2016 and the procedure went off without a hitch. Dr. Jackson, Dr. Merritt and Cardiothoracic Surgeons Dr. Dhru Girard and Dr. Cyrus Parsa teamed up with Redmond’s operating room team, cardiac care specialists, and TAVR Coordinator for the first procedure.

A few days later, Young attended a Rotary meeting in Rome where Dr. Jackson was speaking, showing off just how effective the procedure can be.

Young moved around with a cane assisting him but looked lively and spoke with several people before and after the event, proving the recovery time is indeed quick.

Young felt much better after the procedure and even managed to attend his step-granddaughter’s wedding in May a few weeks later, something he wouldn’t have been able to do before the surgery.

So far the team has finished more than 40 procedures, a bit ahead of schedule from the original plan.

“We had originally planned to do two a month, but we are doing more because patients have heard about it,” Tina Heavin, TAVR Coordinator for Redmond, says.

But perhaps the most moving thing about the new procedure comes from how the doctors and nurses see the patients recover.

“I have been a nurse for a long time. TAVR is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever seen,” Heavin says. “We have patients come in requiring oxygen and a wheelchair to move before they have TAVR. After the procedure, they are walking out on their own. This is truly a life-changing experience for these people, because they probably wouldn’t have survived open heart surgery.”

As patients continue to come in for the procedure, Redmond officials see the time and money spent as a great investment for Northwest Georgia health care.

“In my 42 years at Redmond, I’ve never been involved in anything that changes lives so drastically,” Marsha Colwell, Vice President of Cardiovascular Services at Redmond Regional Medical Center, says.

And now the procedures go on, as the crews from Redmond and Harbin continue teaming to bring the groundbreaking and life changing procedure to Northwest Georgia.