Heart surgery helps Nashville pilot return to the sky | Ascension

Heart surgery helps Nashville pilot return to the sky

Tony Richards was in for a routine physical when his doctor at Ascension Saint Thomas heard a suspicious sound through his stethoscope.

Tony, age 61, had gone to his doctor for a routine screening, hoping to renew his pilot license. During his medical evaluation, the doctor stayed focused on Tony's heart and explained to him that he might have a severe heart murmur and recommended he see a cardiologist as soon as possible. This took Tony by surprise. “I have no family history of heart issues,” Tony said. Tony maintains a very active lifestyle. He walks several miles a day and plays recreational sports. 

He met with Andrew Zurick, III, MD, cardiologist at Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital West, and they began running tests. The results showed that Tony was experiencing severe mitral valve regurgitation and was recommended to undergo robotic mitral valve repair surgery. This type of surgery is performed to fix or replace a leaky or stiff valve in the heart that keeps blood flowing in the right direction.

Tony was then introduced to Evelio Rodriguez, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital, and was scheduled for his surgery on December 20, 2021. “My providers told me to stop taking any supplements or vitamins ten days before surgery, so I did,” said Tony. “I started to develop cold symptoms that turned into the flu and continued to worsen. A couple of weeks later, I was not getting better and I started to have shortness of breath. My wife finally dragged me into the doctor's office and they decided to admit me to the hospital. I lost five pounds of fluid and was diagnosed with COVID-19.” This ultimately led Tony's heart to stop maintaining adequate circulation. 

Tony holding heart pillow

The doctors stressed to Tony they could not perform this surgery until his lungs were stable enough. After a couple of weeks of finally recovering from the flu, COVID-19, and postponing his procedure multiple times, Tony was scheduled for his robotic mitral valve surgery on February 11, 2022, at Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital West. He was in the hospital for six days and is now in cardiac rehab. Tony plans to go back and finish renewing his pilot's license. 

“When I had my checkup with Dr. Rodriguez after surgery, I just gave him a big hug,” said Tony. “I thanked him for saving my life. I went from having no doctors to like seven. Once I was in the Ascension family, I had no doubt about my health. It was like everything was handled so gracefully. They stayed on top of my appointments, checked up on me, and everything in between. I really appreciate their guidance and help through this process.”

Learn more about heart care at Ascension Saint Thomas, or talk to your primary care doctor about heart screenings that are right for you.