This story reflects one person's experience. Not everyone will experience the same results. Talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of your treatment options.
Dawn became concerned about her health when feelings of sleepiness persisted and her chest hurt when she was running. Twenty-six years old with no history of heart conditions in her family and no obvious risk factors, she made an appointment with her doctor.
"After a month and a half, my doctors determined that I had bacterial endocarditis," Dawn recalls. "I was extremely athletic, so having a heart problem like this was very unusual," Dawn explains.
Dawn's endocarditis severely damaged her mitral valve. Soon after her diagnosis, Dawn underwent heart valve replacement surgery to replace her leaky heart valve with a tissue valve.
A tissue valve was the right choice for Dawn in 1988. She experienced a full recovery without having to take anticoagulation medication. (Angicoagulation medication is not recommended for women who are or plan to become pregnant.) Five years later, Dawn, with her husband by her side, gave birth to their only child.
When her tissue valve wore out 10 years later, Dawn was ready for a mechanical valve.
Decision for a Lifetime
Dawn researched medical devices and consulted with her husband who is a cardiothoracic surgeon. She spoke with a partner in his practice who assured her he would recommend a mechanical valve for his own wife or daughter. But the most convincing conversation was one she had with someone who had a mechanical heart valve. Like Dawn, he was an athlete and continued to be an avid cyclist after his procedure.
Approaching surgery was different for Dawn this time. With a young child at home, she desperately wanted a long and healthy life. Despite a speedy recovery of her first heart valve surgery, Dawn thought healing might be harder now that she was 10 years older. She also worried about the side effects of taking warfarin over the long term as she knew stroke, bleeding and easy bruising were possible side effects.
Winding Road to Recovery
The surgery went well and Dawn recovered quickly. She chose to leave the hospital after just three days and continue her recovery at home where she could be near her son. (Dawn now believes that leaving the hospital so quickly was not a wise choice on her part.) Within three months she was walking five miles a day. After six months, she was back to her regular routine.
“I felt 50 billion times better,” said Dawn.
At first, it was hard to get used to the clicking noise from the mechanical valve. Now, it is a reassuring sound that tells Dawn the valve is working.
Dawn continues to take warfarin. To minimize her risk of stroke or other complications, she carefully manages the warfarin levels in her blood using an at-home testing machine. “Now I don’t worry, I know I can adjust my medications and only go to the doctor if I need to,” said Dawn.
Geared-up for Success
“It’s definitely my lifeline,” Dawn says of her mechanical heart valve. In addition to her regular activities, she is now working toward her certification as a personal trainer. Since receiving her mechanical valve in 1999, she has completed a full marathon and over two dozen half marathons.
Dawn wants people to know there is no reason to pity her because she’s had open heart surgery. “If anything," she says, “I have the advantage. Here I am, better than before.”
Last Reviewed: January 19, 2010 2506