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Heart Surgery Innovations

November 02, 2010

A New Technique Helps Patients Recover Faster and Get Back on Their Feet

Each year about 5 million people in this country are diagnosed with valvular heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. For many, it means open heart surgery and the long recovery that goes with it. But thanks to a new technique pioneered by Dr. Jon-Cecil Walkes, who recently joined the staff at Washington Hospital as the new medical director of Cardiothoracic Surgery, area residents can benefit from a minimally invasive procedure to repair or replace the heart valve.

"I came to Washington Hospital for the opportunity to build a stronger cardiac program in this community," Walkes says. "I want to push the envelope and help make Washington Hospital one of the top cardiac surgery centers in the region."

The valve procedure performed by Walkes is the least-invasive technique available today for performing surgery on the tiny valves inside the heart. Unlike traditional valve surgery, which requires surgeons to open up the chest by making a large incision and then breaking the breastbone, the minimally invasive procedure is conducted through small incisions in the chest.

"Minimally invasive surgery actually allows us to do a better job repairing or replacing the valves," Walkes says. "And it’s much better for the patient, with shorter recovery times, less scaring, decreased risk for wound infections and fewer blood transfusions. People get back on their feet quicker and back to business."

Due to her religious beliefs, avoiding a blood transfusion was important to Yvette Stewart, who recently underwent minimally invasive mitral valve replacement surgery. She had rheumatic fever as a child and it damaged her heart.

"Most of my life I’ve suffered from chest pains," Stewart says. "But last April I knew something was different. I woke up one morning and I could barely walk. I was so lightheaded and dizzy."

Her cardiologist told her it was time to do something about her diseased mitral valve and referred her to Walkes.

‘Recovery is Much Easier’

"I’m still getting back in shape, but the chest pain is gone and with the valve functioning properly I will be less tired," says Stewart, who enjoys walking with her dogs and traveling. "I’m so grateful to Dr. Walkes for taking such care to ensure a positive outcome. The surgery will improve my quality of life, and with the minimally invasive procedure, recovery is much easier. We often take our health for granted, but it’s so important."

Valve replacement or repair is needed when the mitral or aortic valves in the heart leak or narrow. Traditionally, surgeons have treated valve disease by removing the diseased valve and replacing it with an artificial one, which Stewart required. But if possible, Walkes prefers to repair the valve rather than replace it.

He has been highly successful using the right mini-thoracotomy, which involves making a two-inch incision between the ribs in the right chest, minimizing trauma to the chest while allowing excellent access to the heart.

"The right mini-thoracotomy provides excellent visualization of the mitral valve and can be used to both repair and replace it," Walkes explains. "We are able to use this approach to repair 90 percent of valves in patients with myxomatous mitral valve disease. It is also our preferred approach to isolated problems of the left and right atria."

He pioneered the procedure while at Memorial Hermann Heart and Vascular Institute at Texas Medical Center in Houston, where he served as director of the Valve Program.

He studied under well-known cardiac surgeon Dr. Michael E. DeBakey while at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. DeBakey invented the roller heart pump and was one of the first to perform coronary artery bypass surgery.

Washington Hospital’s board certified interventional cardiologists and cardiac surgeons have a strong track record in the treatment of heart disease and Walkes is committed to offering patients the most advanced cardiac treatment options available in the Bay Area.

"Washington Hospital is continuing to excel in cardiac surgery and I’m excited to join a team of physicians who are dedicated to providing the highest quality of heart care possible," Walkes says.

This article is also featured in the current issue of Health Signs, a quarterly magazine published by Washington Hospital Healthcare System. If you would like to be added to the Health Signs mailing list, please call Washington Hospital’s Community Relations Department at (510) 791-3417.

When You Need Cardiac Care
For more information about Washington Hospital’s Heart Program, visit www.whhs.com/heart or call (800) 963-7070 for a physician referral.

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