“I am just getting older.”
That was what Maureen Vlcek told herself every time she broke out in sweats while bowling, often after just a single game. Or when she’d have to stop to rest while cleaning the house or working in her yard. As time went on, she found herself having to stop more and more frequently.
Maureen, 75, did not give these symptoms much thought. Many women don’t, until it’s too late.
“In my experience, women often don’t complain about the classical symptoms of heart disease: chest pain, tightness, pressure, discomfort,” says Govind Ramadurai, MD, the interventional cardiologist who treated Maureen at Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet. “Instead, my female patients report feeling ‘a little bit tired’ or ‘a little bit fatigued.’”
Luckily for Maureen, she had a trusted doctor who knew the right questions to ask. She also had a magic mirror that allowed her to see into the future — her twin brother.
Family history leads to timely detection
Since birth, Maureen and her brother’s health have been closely in sync. Both of them were born with heart murmurs and from that point on, Maureen asserts, “if he’s had something, I’ve had it 6-12 months later.” The connection could get a little eerie at times; when her brother was in the navy, he ended up in sickbay with a sore throat at the same time Maureen was having her tonsils removed!
When Maureen’s primary care doctor learned of her symptoms and discovered that her brother had been diagnosed with a blocked heart valve years before, the doctor decided to monitor Maureen’s heart with a series of three electrocardiograms (EKGs) over the course of 18 months. The results of each EKG were a little worse than the one before, prompting her to refer Maureen to a cardiologist.
Maureen was diagnosed with moderate-to-severe aortic stenosis. Aortic stenosis is a disease where the valve between your heart’s lower left chamber and the aorta (which delivers blood to the rest of the body) becomes narrow or doesn’t open fully. This interrupts blood flow, which was why Maureen felt low-energy and short of breath. If left untreated, aortic stenosis can lead to heart failure.
Maureen was shocked at hearing the diagnosis but admits she should not have been. Once again, her brother had gotten there first. Five and a half years earlier, he had undergone open-heart surgery for his aortic valve.
Though her brother’s operation was successful, Maureen had a deep aversion to being intubated, as well as concerns about recovery time. Open-heart surgery patients may require a caregiver for up to two weeks after surgery, and that wasn’t an option for Maureen. She already had to care for her own husband, who was recovering from shoulder surgery and needed help with day-to-day tasks such as getting dressed. She also remembered how long it took her brother to get back to golf and other activities he enjoyed.
When she voiced her anxieties to her cardiologist, he offered an alternative: transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR).
TAVR: an alternative to open-heart surgery
During TAVR, instead of breaking through the sternum to operate on the heart, the interventional cardiologist inserts a catheter in the patient’s groin and threads it up into the aortic valve. Once there, the catheter balloons to create space and then delivers the new artificial valve. The procedure itself typically takes less than half an hour. Patients go home within 24 hours, increasingly on the day of their procedure.
“TAVR is well-suited for patients who are not ideal candidates for open-heart surgery,” says Dr. Ramadurai. “This generally means people over the age of 70, but also people who are managing a combination of conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, emphysema and high cholesterol.”
Maureen, who was managing diabetes along with her heart murmur, was quickly confirmed as a good candidate for TAVR after a few diagnostic tests. Dr. Ramadurai sat down with Maureen to walk her through what to expect.
“There was not a question that I could ask that they didn’t answer,” she remembers. “I knew that the good lord must have been guiding me to go there and that the right people were taking care of me.”
Ascension Illinois has performed more than 1,250 TAVR procedures at its hospitals in Joliet, Elk Grove Village and Chicago. The high quality of its expertise and team has enhanced the patient experience. Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet, in particular, beats the national average in terms of success rate, mortality rate, stroke incidence and complications. Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet plans to build on this success by adding the MitraClip™ procedure to its services. Like TAVR, MitraClip gives interventional cardiologists a minimally invasive way to repair another important valve in the heart. This helps round out the structural heart services the hospital already performs, including WATCHMAN™ and pediatric cardiology.
Maureen’s TAVR procedure took place on September 14, 2022 in Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet’s catheterization lab. This hybrid space, made possible by local philanthropic support via the Ascension Illinois Foundation, allows the surgical team to respond quickly if something goes wrong, enhancing patient safety.
“If a patient experiences a complication during the procedure, we don’t lose valuable time moving them to another room,” says Dr. Ramadurai. “The surgeons, the anesthesiologist, the machines, everything and everyone is right there, ready to go.”
Maureen is also grateful to donors for the hybrid cath lab. “I thank them dearly because it’s right here. I didn’t have to travel miles away or go to a special hospital in another state.”
This close proximity made it easy for Maureen to arrive on time at 6 a.m. By 7:20 a.m., she was taken down to the cath lab. By 10:30 a.m., she was back in her room. By 6:30 p.m., Maureen was already back home after being discharged. This speedy turnaround meant a great deal to her because she was able to be there for her husband.
Back to active in days
Maureen was astonished by how quickly she rebounded after surgery, especially compared to her brother’s experience. By the third or fourth day, Maureen felt well enough to tidy up the house.
“I’m not one who likes to lay around,” admits Maureen. “I want to move.”
Maureen is getting what she wants. Three times per week, she comes to Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet’s on-site gym for 30 minutes of education and 30 minutes of exercise on a stationary bicycle or treadmill. If she ever needs to get in touch with Dr. Ramadurai and his team, all she has to do is walk down the hall to their office after her session. She also has a direct line to call them. Her rehabilitation is expected to conclude after three months.
Maureen is the first to admit that “I’m a fighter.” Dr. Ramadurai credits this spirit for her recovery ahead of schedule.
“As a heart doctor, I can fix the physical issue. But if a patient is feeling depressed or not getting enough support from friends or family members, it can take longer for them to recover. Maureen was very motivated, and mind is a powerful thing.”
For patients who need help getting into that mindset, Ascension Illinois can connect them with health psychologists, support groups, spiritual care and more.
“I thought I had a lot of energy before, but now I have energy!”
By October 4, Maureen was back on the lane at her local bowling alley, slightly ahead of the month her doctors thought it would take — and averaging a score of 107 per game. As of early November, Maureen is closing in on her pre-pandemic average of 125 (she’s up to 117). And these days, when she stops while raking the yard, it’s because she wants to, not because she has to.
“I thought I had a lot of energy before, but now I have energy!,” laughs Maureen.
Maureen thanks her doctors and also the nurses who were by her side throughout her procedure. She says that their support and compassion is what sets Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet apart.
“I’m sure I could have gone anywhere else and there would be a good team, but the team that took care of me did a phenomenal job and I could not sing their praises any higher.”