Health & Spirit

Octogenarian weightlifter embraces alternative to open-heart surgery

Paul Sisson, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Health & Fitness

SOLANA BEACH, Calif. -- Whether he's snatching a heavily-loaded weight bar off the ground or pushing it overhead in the classic clean-and-jerk stance, Robert Strange is a living example of the revolution underway in heart valve-replacement surgery.

In May, the 82-year-old Solana Beach resident entered a clinical trial for a minimally-invasive procedure to replace a balky aortic valve that restricted his circulation and left him feeling light-headed, especially during exercise. Seven days later, he was back in his garage adding a fresh set of scuffs to the well-abused pile of plates that have been his obsession since he first started Olympic lifting at age 58.

But those weights would probably still be on the ground if Strange had opted for an "open" aortic valve replacement procedure, which requires surgeons to sever the breastbone with a scalpel to gain access to the chest cavity for open-heart surgery.

Avoiding what some in the medical community call a "crack" was imperative for a man whose father did not survive a similar operation.

"They opened him up and a week later they had to unplug him. He never regained consciousness," Strange said. "I said, 'no, I don't want that.' "

Though Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement has been available to high-risk patients -- those deemed too frail to survive open-heart surgery -- since 2012, thousands of low-risk patients like Strange, people who are otherwise in good health, have had to enter a clinical trial to get Medicare to pay for the procedure which most call TAVR.


But that's likely to change soon due to a new set of results recently presented at the American College of Cardiology's annual meeting in New Orleans.

Results showed that TAVR delivered a significant reduction in strokes, a somewhat lower chance of death and significantly-shorter recovery times for the 725 randomly-assigned patients whose results were compared to a like number of patients who underwent traditional open valve replacement surgeries.

"The results with the minimally-invasive catheter procedure are so good, they're actually better than the open procedure, which was a bit of a surprise to us," said Dr. Paul Teirstein, chief of cardiology and director of interventional cardiology at Scripps Prebys Cardiovascular Institute where Strange was treated.

The physician predicted that, seven years after the FDA approved TAVR for high-risk patients, a similar move is in the cards for low-risk patients. That, he said, should further shift the odds for patients in need of valve replacement.


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