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New procedure gives Superior woman new lease on life

Connie Wirta

Essential You editor

Bernice Olenski doesn’t want to live forever.

“I don’t want to be 100,” she says with smile, “but I’ll take 99½.”

At age 94, Bernice has a new lease on life. She’s one of the first patients in the Northland to have a failing heart valve replaced in a revolutionary new procedure.

Because of her age, Bernice wasn’t a candidate for traditional open-heart surgery. Instead, a team from the Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Heart & Vascular Center implanted an artificial valve using a catheter.

Transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) is similar to the procedure used to open blocked arteries and place stents near the heart, explains Dr. Mudassar Ahmed, an Essentia Health interventional cardiologist. The Duluth heart center is the only place in the Northland to offer TAVR, and one of only six facilities in Minnesota.

Like many older people, Bernice didn’t know calcium was building up in her heart valve. She felt herself slowing down and feeling tired but thought it was just part of aging. One day she got dizzy, fell in her apartment and was taken to Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth. Doctors discovered she had a blocked cardiac artery and aortic stenosis, the narrowing of the aortic valve.

Aortic stenosis is life-threatening. Nearly half of patients who experience symptoms die within two years if the defective valve isn’t repaired or replaced. For younger and healthier patients, valve replacement means open-heart surgery. Little could be done for older or sicker patients — until TAVR.

The new procedure takes less time and is much less invasive than open-heart surgery so recovery is easier, explains Dr. Antonio Laudito, a cardiothoracic surgeon on the TAVR team and section chair of Cardiothoracic Surgery. Dr. Laudito points out that TAVR also is performed on a beating heart instead of using a heart-lung machine.

Bernice says she trusted Dr. Ahmed when he recommended TAVR, even though it’s a new procedure. He’d earned her trust over months of caring for her when he placed a stent to open a cardiac artery.

“You don’t have to worry about it when you’re in his hands,” Bernice says. “My youngest daughter asked Dr. Ahmed if his mother was 94 and needed a new valve, would he have this done and he said yes. That did it for me.”

Dr. Ahmed, who serves as director of the Heart & Vascular Center’s Cardiac Catherization Lab, says Bernice was a good candidate for the procedure because she’s active and lives independently in her own apartment. “Bernice is a firecracker,” he says. “It’s sad to see someone who enjoys life so much to be slowed down by this disease.”

Bernice spent four days in the hospital after her Nov. 4 TAVR procedure and then two weeks in rehabilitation at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Hospital in Superior before returning to her apartment.

“I really feel like I can do something now,” Bernice says, explaining she has more energy and it’s easier to breath. “I was so tired before, and I’m usually the one who keeps going.”

On a recent shopping trip with her daughters, Bernice knew she was getting better. “The girls were ready to call it quits and I wasn’t ready to go home yet,” the Superior resident says.

Bernice wants to watch her 22 great-grandchildren grow and travel to weddings as her 13 grandchildren marry. And she’s still got to keep up with her two sons and three daughters.

“Any family gathering — I never miss any of them,” Bernice says. “They joke that they hate to invite me too far in advance because I’ve got my coat on and I’m out the door.”