Heart Surgery Patient Overcomes Limitations
The first time Lynn Understock took a walk after open-heart surgery she barely made it down the driveway. Now, 10 months after replacing a valve and part of her aorta, Understock is in the gym several days a week. “Limited” is not a word she would use to describe herself anymore.
“Just because you have surgery doesn’t mean you’re never going to be able to do the things you did before,” she said. “I am healthier today than I was before surgery. I feel like a refurbished person — they made my heart stronger.”
Understock has known she had a heart murmur since she was young but it wasn’t until her 30s that it was diagnosed as a bicuspid aortic valve. The congenital defect means her aortic valve has two leaflets instead of three. Over time calcium buildup can further limit blood flow — known as aortic stenosis, which can cause dizzy spells, trouble breathing and possible death if untreated, said Christopher Paa, MD, Cardiologist with Avera Heart Hospital.
“About 1 percent of the population has a bicuspid valve,” Paa said. “There are a lot of people running around with them.”
People may not have a murmur until their 20s and may not have any complications until later in life, Paa said. But when aortic stenosis develops there may come a point where a valve replacement is needed.
Over the years, Understock was consistently monitored by her cardiac team. She knew a valve replacement could be in her future, but she hoped she could avoid it.
The Time Is Now
In March 2015, she noticed something wasn’t right and went in for an echocardiogram, and received the news it was time to have surgery. An angiogram led to the discovery of an enlarged ascending aorta that might cause additional problems if not fixed.
“I didn’t realize until the angiogram that I had an aneurysm and during surgery surgeons saw the tissue was paper thin,” Understock said. “I had been in the gym the week before, so I really considered myself lucky because it didn’t just dissect.”
Although Understock had some fatigue and dizziness, other than an odd feeling in her chest she felt fine. Paa said that is often the case with patients who often don’t realize how bad they felt until after they start recovering.
Back to the Gym
Surgery in April went well, with no complications. She still has a few restrictions such as not lifting anything more than 30 pounds with each arm and is also on a blood thinner.
It takes about a year to fully recover and Understock said that can be frustrating at times as she works to regain the strength she once had. Her first time at cardiac rehab she walked on the treadmill at 1.9 mph. After 20 sessions she was up to 3.4 mph and has since been working to get strength back in her arms and legs while also being cautious of her healing body.
“I’m still working on strength training and I get a little bit impatient but I just remember what my cardiology team tells me, ‘You’ve got to be patient, it takes a year,’” she said.