During treatment, two-time breast cancer survivor Suzanne Wright hoped to live long enough for her young son to remember her. And she has – having finally achieved remission, Suzanne thought she had finished with the fight of her life and could simply enjoy being present for her family. She even worked for Baystate Health for 24 years in the Cash Application Department, specializing in Medicare.
However, as time went on, Suzanne began to experience complications with her heart, which eventually resulted in a failed open-heart aortic valve surgery. Her breaking point was in 2012 when Suzanne felt short of breath while on vacation in Las Vegas. Not wanting to be seen by unfamiliar doctors so far from home, she flew home to Massachusetts and was taken by ambulance to Baystate Medical Center (BMC) the next morning.
“I was sitting there in Las Vegas, and I couldn’t breathe, but I didn’t want to go to the hospital because I had to get home,” Suzanne remembered. “I have been through a lot of medical things and had too much history to go to a strange place. I knew I’d get good care at Baystate.”
TAVR: A Minimally Invasive Heart Surgery Option
Once at BMC, Dr. Ashequl Islam, Associate Chief, Division of Cardiology and then TAVR program director, placed Suzanne in a cohort of about 15 other patients, who, several months later, were the first at BMC to have a Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement procedure, or TAVR.
The TAVR procedure is a minimally invasive alternative to open heart surgery, often used in patients with aortic valve stenosis, whose aortic valve has thickened to obstruct blood flow to the heart. Performed by using the flexible tubing of a catheter to reach the heart, the TAVR procedure relies on passing the new aortic valve through the tubing to guide it into the correct position.
“Anyone with appropriate anatomy and clinical symptoms of severe aortic stenosis might be a candidate regardless of age, gender and underlying clinical conditions,” explains Dr. Islam. “TAVR is an especially attractive alternative in patients with elevated risk for surgery due to its less invasive nature, lower risk, and quicker recovery, in general.”
Suzanne, with her high-risk medical history, could clearly benefit from a more low-impact option. At the time, the TAVR procedure was relatively new and hadn’t yet been performed at Baystate Health. While Suzanne considered herself fortunate to be in the first group to receive the surgery and was optimistic about the outcome, with many of her cohort receiving the TAVR procedure on the same day, she had strong opinions about where in the lineup she fell.
“I didn’t want to be number one, and I didn’t want to be later in the afternoon,” she laughs.
TAVR Surgery and Recovery
Instead, Suzanne was the third patient at BMC to undergo the TAVR procedure — and while that positioning may have worked in her favor, it was the doctors who worked magic.
“I had a good rapport with Dr. Islam from the start,” she notes. “After surgery, I was in recovery, and I saw him creeping in the room, and when I waved to him, he was celebrating and was all puffed up. So, from then on, we became buddies. When we see each other, our eyes light up because we shared that moment of triumph together in the recovery room.”
After a successful surgery, Suzanne was released from the hospital within 24 hours and was pleasantly surprised by how quickly she recovered.
“When I first went into the hospital, I couldn’t walk across my living room floor,” she remembers. “But right away, I was back to myself. I didn’t expect to feel so good.”
In fact, Suzanne felt so good that she was soon able to return to her regular life and favorite activities, like camping.
Second TAVR Procedure for Suzanne
However, the TAVR procedure is not a one-time surgery. At the time of her procedure, Suzanne was told that her new aortic valve would likely last about five to ten years. However, it wasn’t until now, 11 years later, that she needed her second procedure. That is considered a significant medical success.
“If someone with severe aortic stenosis has a relatively long life expectancy, then TAVR valves may not last for his or her whole life,” says Dr. Islam. “Lifelong management of patients is becoming more important as TAVR is being offered to younger and healthier patients, compared to when we started the program in 2012! We have to consider the risks and feasibility of second or even a third surgery or procedure in some of these patients who would likely outlive their surgical or TAVR valves.”
While Suzanne’s heart valve held up incredibly well, it quickly became apparent when it was time for a new one. Between August and December 2022, Suzanne was taken to Baystate Medical Center by ambulance several times, where doctors discovered that the replaced aortic valve was torn and had a significant leak, meaning that it had to be replaced.
With a second TAVR procedure on the horizon, Suzanne once again teamed up with Dr. Islam, along with cardiac surgeon Dr. Siavash Saadat.
“I was very happy to see Dr. Islam the second time around,” she says. “He asked me if I was ready to do this again. Without hesitation, I told him, ‘With you, yes.'"
“As a physician, it is extremely gratifying and rewarding, and I am fortunate to be able to do this for patients like her,” adds Dr. Islam. “It has dramatically changed her longevity and quality of life.”
Much like her first TAVR surgery, the procedure went well, and Suzanne is now back on her feet. She noted that she remains cautious in her day-to-day life but doesn’t necessarily need to be.
“I can’t believe how I feel,” she says. “Yesterday, I went to rehab, and when I got through the front door, I realized I had some pep in my step, and it’s just amazing.”
Suzanne was also heartened by her progress in rehab—she has been able to walk the prescribed laps faster and in the time frame suggested by her providers. And other seemingly unrelated symptoms she was experiencing, like feeling sick to her stomach, have all cleared up since surgery.
“It’s a game-changer,” Suzanne said of her TAVR procedure. “It’s almost immediate recovery. This is like my third life, and I’m a new person.”