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Minimally Invasive Heart Surgery Saved His Life

February 24, 2012

Fremont Resident Returns to the Activities He Loves

One night last April, Michael Lingle awoke out of a sound sleep because he couldn't breathe. He felt like he was drowning. A tiny valve in his heart had become damaged and it was leaking fluid into his lungs.

"It turns out the valve wasn't closing properly," Lingle said. "I could see the damage when they showed it to me on an ultrasound."

About 5 million people in this country are diagnosed with valvular heart disease each year, according to the American Heart Association. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and a major cause of disability. February is designated American Heart Month to raise awareness about heart disease and ways to prevent it.

It's not clear what caused the damage to Lingle's mitral valve, which regulates the flow of blood from the upper-left chamber of the heart to the lower-left chamber. He didn't have rheumatic fever as a child, which raises the risk. In early 2010, Lingle's cardiologist told him he heard a heart murmur, which must have been the sound of the valve flapping. But Lingle said he felt fine and didn't give it much thought until that night in April.

Pioneering Technique

Lingle was referred to Dr. Jon-Cecil Walkes, chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Washington Hospital, who has pioneered a minimally invasive technique for mitral valve repair surgery. Last June, Walkes was able to repair Lingle's mitral valve through small incisions in his chest.

In the past, mitral valve disease had been treated by removing the damaged valve and replacing it with a new one through a large incision in the chest. Surgeons had to break the breastbone so they could open up the chest wide enough to operate.

"Now we prefer to repair the valve if at all possible," Walkes said. "It leads to better outcomes and better preservation of the heart function."

Walkes has been highly successful using the right mini-thoracotomy for valve repair procedures like Lingle's. He makes a two-inch incision between the ribs in the right chest, minimizing trauma to the chest while allowing access to the heart. He performs the surgery through seven small incisions in the chest using special surgical instruments.

"This procedure provides an excellent view of the mitral valve without cracking the breastbone," Walkes said. "The mini-thoracotomy can be used to both repair and replace the mitral valve."

Quicker Recovery

Minimally invasive heart surgery offers a number of benefits, including quicker recovery times, according to Walkes.

"People get back on their feet faster," he said. "The risk for infection is lower and there is less blood loss, reducing the need for blood transfusions."

That was the case for Lingle, who spent only four days at Washington Hospital after the surgery.

"I received great care in the hospital, but I was ready to go home," said Lingle, who lives in Fremont. "It was Father's Day and I just wanted to get home and be with my family."

He said fortunately he had been in good health before the surgery, which helped with his recovery. Lingle also benefitted from the Cardiac Rehabilitation program at Washington Hospital.

"I spent a lot of time on the treadmill," he said. "I like to walk my dogs, but they are big, so I had to wait until I got back in shape."

Lingle, who spent 22 years in the Navy and now works as an electrical supervisor at C&H Sugar Company, was eager to get back to hunting and fishing. He was finally able to do that last fall.

"I'm just happy to be here," he said. "If I hadn't gotten medical attention after that incident in April, I might not be here. That valve could have blown out at any time. The surgery saved my life. I really encourage people to take control of their own health. If something doesn't seem right, get to the doctor."

The Heart of the Matter

To learn more about Washington Hospital's Cardiothoracic Surgery program, visit www.whhs.com/openheart.

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