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Grateful Patient, 94, Returns to Normal Life 3 Months After Heart Valve Replacement

Grateful Patient, 94, Returns to Normal Life 3 Months After Heart Valve Replacement

Less than three months after an aortic valve replacement at Washington Hospital, 94-year-old Gonzala Ruelas of Hayward felt well enough to attend a relative’s 86th birthday celebration.

Described by her daughter Frances Ruelas as a “social butterfly,” Gonzala is thrilled to resume her normal life, which, in addition to parties, includes cooking, light gardening, and vacationing in Arizona to meet her great grandchild. The family is especially grateful to the doctors at Washington Hospital who diagnosed Gonzala’s problem and repaired her heart with a minimally invasive procedure less risky to older patients.

“My mother has always been independent,” says Frances. “She has lived on her own since losing her husband 15 years ago.” She adds, “She cooks for herself and the family, so the hardest part for her was when she had to depend on me after her surgery.”

Gonzala, the mother of five, fainted last year at home, luckily while Frances was visiting, and was taken by ambulance to the local hospital. “I was so afraid she had a heart attack,” says her daughter. The Emergency Department determined that she didn’t have a heart attack, but was concerned that a heart problem caused her to lose consciousness, and instructed her to see a cardiologist.

Since she didn’t have a cardiologist, Gonzala got a referral to Washington Hospital from one of her other doctors. This was their first experience with Washington Hospital Healthcare System (WHHS). Gonzala met with Ramin Beygui, MD, medical director of Cardiothoracic Surgery; and Harsh Agrawal, MD, an interventional cardiologist certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine.

Heart valves can thicken with age

After performing tests and images of Gonzala’s heart, the doctors diagnosed her with a heart valve that wasn’t working efficiently. It had thickened and calcified with age, a common occurrence called aortic stenosis. The valve wasn’t opening and closing the way it should, preventing the proper pumping of blood, which can cause fatigue and fainting. Gonzala needed an aortic valve replacement.

Fortunately, the Hospital has offered the transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) procedure since 2021, a minimally invasive surgery especially helpful for older patients. TAVR eliminates open-heart surgery and the need to go on the heart-lung machine, which can pose a risk for older and sicker patients. Sedation, also a risk to the elderly, is minimal, and recovery is reduced to several weeks. In most cases, TAVR also eliminates the need for a patient to take blood thinner medications for the rest of their lives, as with a mechanical valve replacement.

Dr. Agrawal performed the two-hour TAVR on Gonzala in March, and she is feeling great. She shares, “I’m very grateful to the doctors, and everyone I encountered at Washington Hospital during this procedure. Everyone was so attentive and took such good care of me. God Bless them all, and thank you.”

After a brief stay, she was discharged home to recover for a few weeks, while her daughters Frances and Gloria and granddaughter Angelina stayed and cared for her. “She’s doing really well. I can’t believe how good she looks. I’m back to taking her out to church on Sundays,” says Frances. “She’s cooking, and even making food for her priest.”

“The doctors and every staff member we encountered in the doctors’ offices were wonderful to us. This is the best hospital. The staff did everything to make my mom comfortable and were always helpful to me,” she adds.

TAVR is an excellent option for many patients. A new bioprosthetic valve is placed in the heart, supplanting the existing valve. The insertion is made either through an artery in the groin or through an artery connecting to the heart from the chest. A small incision is made to access the artery and the new valve is inserted and placed over the old damaged valve, and put into place.

The aortic valve must be replaced if it isn’t allowing the blood to come through it efficiently after the heart pumps. Aortic stenosis can’t be treated with medication; the condition requires surgery to replace the valve. If the valve isn’t replaced, heart failure can occur.

The Ruelases’ first experience with Washington Hospital was enough to make them forever grateful patients. “We’re not going to a different hospital. If anything happens in the future, we’re going to Washington Hospital,” says Frances.

To learn more about the Cardiac Services program at WHHS, visit To learn more about Dr. Agrawal.