Medical procedure provides new, less invasive option for heart patients

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Open heart surgery is a very serious procedure. What if you're too old or too sick to survive it? In the past, many patients were turned away, forced to deal with some pretty bad symptoms. Now, there are more options. WHNT NEWS 19 explains how one of them works.

Henry Mattern is 91 years old and still active.

"I try to walk a couple miles a day and I do water exercises," says Mattern.

He didn't want heart problems getting in his way.

"I had a heart murmur and I was a little tired," describes Mattern.

He also didn't want to undergo open heart surgery. In September of 2015, Dr. Shaf Holden performed the TAVR procedure, which stands for Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement.

"This procedure itself is reserved only for patients who have been deemed by two surgeons as too high risk or prohibitive risk for standard surgical valve," explains Dr. Holden, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Huntsville Hospital.

During the procedure, doctors insert a catheter and wires through the leg and guide it up to the heart to position the valve. It's mounted on a fixed post ring-type device on the inside of a stint.

"That stint is then crimped down onto a balloon and mounted on a catheter that is a little bit smaller than my pinky," says Dr. Holden. "We can put that in through the leg."

Using an X-ray and echocardiogram to see the heart, the stint is put into the diseased valve.

"That balloon is then expanded inside the stint to blow the stint up and that stint then takes the place of the native valve and inside that stint you have this brand new valve," says Dr. Holden.

It's minimally invasive and more inclusive. Going through the leg is just one option. Doctors can also perform the TAVR procedure through a small incision in the upper part of the chest or through the chest wall. Dr. Holden says either route still means a quicker recovery and less pain than traditional open heart surgery.

"It's amazing, because up until recently, we had no way to treat these patients," says Dr. Holden.

Procedures like this, along with the creation of the comprehensive valve program a few years ago, means patients don't have to travel outside of north Alabama for help.

"Now, we're the only hospital in north Alabama that does all of these things," says Dr. Holden. "We have all of that here at Huntsville Hospital. Our patients don't have to leave any more."

There's a least one patient who is very grateful.

"Oh absolutely!" responds Mattern when asked if he considers the TAVR procedure a success. "Not driving bothered me for a couple weeks, but I bounced back real quick."