“I felt like a drunken sailor. But I didn’t have any pain. It was just creeping up on me,” said Carlson, 82. “So I went to my regular doctor and ... he said there’s something going loopy with your heart.”
It turns out Carlson was suffering from aortic stenosis, which is most commonly caused by simple aging. Over time, the aortic valve, which has three flaps that open and close in unison as blood is pumped into and then out of the heart, can calcify. A 2002 study by the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that 2 percent of the population has it, although Roberts pointed out that only about half the patients with symptoms — shortness of breath, chest pain and fainting — have anything done. Once you have symptoms, he said, there is only a 50 percent survival rate of 18 months.
While neither women felt pain, they knew they were slowing down. But neither was ready. Carlson, a mother of five, had been selected from 400 residents at her assisted-living facility in Venice to be an ambassador to new residents.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on if you choose to be a part of it,” she said. “OK, it’s a little different lifestyle than when you’re raising children and have your own home, but life moves on and if you don’t move with it, you’re going to be a very unhappy person and I choose to be a happy person. I think, hey, I only travel this road once.”
So when her doctor suggested the valve replacement procedure, Carlson was game. Plus, a previous doctor had given her only 10 days to three months to live. And Carlson was having none of that.
“He said don’t wait too long on this. Get on your horse and gallop,” she said.
Dr. Niberto Moreno, chief of cardiothoracic surgery, and Dr. Ramon Quesada, medical director of interventional cardiology and cardiac research, performed the procedure on Carlson at the hospital’s Cardiac and Vascular Institute.
“When I came to, it was like I was a different person,” Carlson said. “I woke up and my head was clear as a bell.”
Doctors typically perform the surgery by inserting a wire through the groin, into the femoral artery and up into the heart, Quesada explained.
The catheter is then slid over the wire with a balloon to open the valve. The replacement valve — a metal ring is then forced onto the damaged valve.
Doctors use ultrasound and CT imaging to follow what they’re doing on monitors mounted around the operating room, which can be crowded with 10 to 12 people from both the surgery and cardiology departments, Moreno said.
In some cases, femoral arteries are blocked, so doctors go in through a small incision in the chest, said Dr. Mauricio Cohen, an associate professor and medical director of the Sussman Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at the University of Miami Hospital.
UM, which participated in the trials beginning in 2008, has performed more than 300 of the procedures, Cohen said.
“We’re used to treating other types of things — coronary disease and we treat heart attacks. But we have never been able to cure or treat or reverse conditions such as severe aortic stenosis,” he said. “Even though these patients are old, they’re very functional and have a meaningful life.”
Indeed. Blander remarried after her first husband died. Alone in Plantation, where she’d lived for 31 years, her son and daughter convinced her to move to Boca Raton to be close to them. About three months after she moved into her Century Village apartment, a gentleman knocked on her door and invited her to see a show. Not knowing how to respond, she called her daughter.
“I hadn’t gone out on a date with anybody in the six years [my husband] was gone and she said, ‘Mom, if you don’t go out with this gentleman, because he’s so nice, I’ll never talk to you again. Life is for the living. Go.” So I did and we were married a year and a half later,” Blander said.
And in February, they booked a two-week spring cruise to the Caribbean.
“He said to me one day, ‘You go through this, you get well and if the doctor says yes, we’re going on a cruise.’ And that’s what happened.”