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Florence Wilkison with doctors

Young at heart at age 99 thanks to innovative surgery

They say age is just a number, and there's no better example than Florence Wilkison of La Farge, Wis., who will be 100 years young in 2019.

"She looks and acts like a vibrant 75-year-old," says Florence's cardiologist Michael Witcik, MD, of Gundersen Health System. "I felt Florence could be a good candidate for TAVR."

TAVR, or transcatheter aortic valve replacement, is a minimally invasive procedure to replace a vital heart valve.

At age 99, Florence still lives independently and drives. She's led a very busy life, working well into her 80s. She was a single parent to five daughters, and now boasts 94 grandchildren over four generations (including great-great-great grandkids).

But Florence sensed a change in her health. "When I got busy, I would have to sit down," Florence remembers. "I didn't trust myself."

Florence's doctor, Shawn Sedgwick, MD, at Vernon Memorial Healthcare, sent her to see a Gundersen heart specialist in La Crosse where her heart valve problem was diagnosed. "After running tests, they had to decide if they would, should or could do anything," recalls Florence.

Valve replacement has traditionally been an open-heart procedure. But for older patients (late 80s or older), open-heart surgery is usually too risky. Until a few years ago, there were few other options, but in 2014 Gundersen began performing TAVR as a viable alternative.

While less invasive, TAVR is still not right for everyone. "We worry about complications in older patients. But, Florence had no pulmonary problems, kidney disease or other serious health issues to put her at risk," Dr. Witcik explains. "It would not be fair to rule her out because of age, but I had to convince the team. Although once they met her and reviewed her health, they were on board."

So, in January 2019, Florence had the TAVR procedure performed by Gundersen heart surgeon Sajjad Rizvi, MD. A catheter carrying a collapsed replacement valve was threaded to her heart through a very small incision. Delivered to the site of the faulty valve, the new aortic valve was expanded into place.

"I wasn't frightened. It was a very positive experience and I'm glad I did it. I sure noticed a difference," says Florence.

Dr. Witcik agrees that Florence's recovery has been remarkable. "Florence is a prime example of why we look at the whole person when making our decisions about eligibility. She's amazing and she's done great."

If you've been told you need a heart valve replaced or repaired, talk to their doctor about a referral to the Gundersen Valve Clinic or call (608) 775-2335 to learn about your options.

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