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Rollie Niebuhr

This time out, heart surgery meant no pain

As the owner of a plumbing and heating business for nearly 30 years, 75-year-old Rollie Niebuhr knows the problems that can arise from a faulty valve. He also knows first-hand the problems caused by another type of faulty valve—this one in his heart.

In 2015, Rollie's doctor discovered his aortic valve—the valve in the main artery of his heart—wasn't functioning properly due to plaque build-up. "My breathing was getting more difficult; it really slowed me down," reports Rollie who, at the time, was still actively going to the office two to three days a week (he has since sold the business and is now retired).

The best treatment for Rollie's bad valve was to replace the valve, but there was a wrinkle in that plan. Traditionally, open-heart surgery has been used.

Rollie is no stranger to open-heart surgery, having his first in 1982 and again in 2008. With open-heart surgery, the surgeon makes a long vertical cut—cutting through bone—to open the chest and access the heart. This results in a long, thick scar.

"Because of scarring from my earlier surgeries, it would have been too risky to perform another open-heart surgery," Rollie explains. "Lucky for me, Gundersen was able to replace this valve without cutting open my chest."

Gundersen Health System began offering a minimally invasive procedure known as TAVR (transcatheter aortic valve replacement) in 2014.

"The primary approach uses a catheter threaded into the femoral artery with a direct puncture or a small incision in the groin," explains Rollie's cardiologist Sampoornima Setty, MD. "Using imaging, we guide a catheter carrying a collapsed stent valve to the site of the faulty aortic valve. When we deploy the new valve, it pins the leaflets of the old valve out of the way and takes over the valve's function."

Though TAVR is less invasive, there may still be risks. The FDA has approved the procedure but so far only for patients who are high or intermediate surgical risks such as those with:

  • Additional severe health conditions
  • Anatomic and surgical hurdles such as scarring from previous bypass surgeries or radiation, like Rollie
  • Severe hardening or calcification of the main heart artery

"I believe that in 5 years, they will only be doing TAVR—no more open heart surgery," predicts Rollie. "With my open-heart surgeries, it was eight months to a year before I felt decent. The TAVR procedure went so well I didn't even know I had had it when I woke up. I had the surgery on Wednesday and went home on Friday with no pain."

To learn more visit gundersenhealth.org/TAVR. If you think you may be a candidate for TAVR, talk with your cardiologist.

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