The Trouble I Had With My Heart's Mitral Valve
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Health

How Listening to My Heart — Literally — Led to Surgery

It was a procedure that altered how I lead my life.

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Margeaux Walter

Last summer I was vigorously backstroking across Gardiner’s Bay at Barnes Landing in Amagansett, New York, when I heard seagulls squawk. I looked up, expecting to see a flock. Yet, the blue sky was clear. 

I quickly realized the sound was coming from my chest. Although I’d had a heart murmur for many years, it hadn’t been anything I could hear — until a few months prior to that summer day, when I started to perceive the occasional rumble.

Fifteen years before, at an annual checkup, stethoscope to my heart, my primary care physician had said: “You have quite a murmur. You should see a cardiologist.” Then Ira Schulman, M.D., a cardiology specialist at NYU Langone Health’s Trinity Center, diagnosed me with mitral valve prolapse.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, “mitral valve prolapse is a type of heart valve disease that affects the valve between the left heart chambers. The flaps (leaflets) of the mitral valve are floppy. They bulge backward (prolapse) like a parachute into the heart’s left upper chamber as the heart squeezes (contracts).” Symptoms include an irregular heartbeat, palpitations and shortness of breath. Many people with the condition don’t ever require treatment or surgery.

Schulman prescribed Losartan. I routinely took my pill and never worried about the fact that I had heart disease. He told me that I could “live a normal life with the support of the medicine.”

But after my swimming episode in the summer of 2021, Schulman requested I schedule an echocardiogram, a sonogram of the heart. Those results indicated that my mitral valve was no longer closing completely, and it was leaking blood backward. In medical terms, I now had “mitral valve regurgitation.” My enlarged heart required surgery.

I landed in the office of cardiac surgeon Didier Loulmet at NYU Langone Health’s Tisch Hospital. Loulmet had pioneered and perfected robotic mitral valve repair in the United States. He explained to me how robotic surgery is far less invasive than traditional surgery, since it involves making five 2-inch holes in the chest, rather than cracking the whole chest open. 

The reality of what was about to happen threw me into a panic. Though I was relieved to hear that Loulmet had performed 1,200 of these surgeries, I sought more reassurance: “So, it’s not such a big deal?”

He responded: “It is a big deal. It’s still open-heart surgery, but you will recover more quickly with less likelihood of infection.”

When I asked if it was absolutely necessary, he said my heart would slowly fail me otherwise. Indeed, my further research confirmed that if the condition was left unattended, total heart failure could result in five years. 

Approximately 300,000 women died of heart disease in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American Heart Association states that heart disease is the number 1 killer among women in the U.S.  Sixty-four percent of women who died suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms. And the average age at which a first heart attack occurs in women is 72. 

These are sobering truths I’d never thought about until I had to. When I underwent my surgery, I had just turned 73.

The successful procedure altered how I lead my life. As I recover, I know on a deeper level that my time is too valuable to spend doing things I don’t have to do. I learned to stop worrying about what I can’t control. I feel more positive about everything, from savoring a favorite sandwich of goat Brie to relishing the feat of swimming again in Gardiner’s Bay. I write more now, clarifying my thoughts and getting to know myself more intimately.  

Life has happily slowed down for me, as I’ve realized the only certainty I have is to enjoy each day.

At 73, listening to my heart means doing work I feel passionate about. I’ve started writing a novel, there are still paintings I want to create, and in a few months, I will be strong enough to resume my real estate work, running around New York City with clients looking to purchase residences.

Although the surgeon didn’t open my chest, my heart has never felt so receptive and vulnerable. I experience fear, stress, love and gratitude far more intensely. Sometimes these emotions are radiant feelings that occur randomly. Yet, I experience them all fully, with an open heart, particularly toward the friends and family who have showered me with so much caring and support. I use the word “love” more often and genuinely every day.

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