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Revolutionary heart procedure opens the door for people considered ‘inoperable’

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT)-- In August, a team of Huntsville Hospital medical staff at The Heart Center started offering the only transcatheter aortic valve replacement procedures in North Alabama. They are now able to take referrals from area physicians.

It's a procedure to treat Aortic Stenosis, a condition most commonly in the elderly that causes the aortic valve to malfunction. It doesn't open easily because it calcifies, so pressure builds in the heart.

Cardiologists say common symptoms are shortness of breath, blood pressure changes, dizziness, passing out, and chest pressure.

If untreated, there is a 50% chance of death within two years, says cardiologist Dr. Alex Vasquez. And the only cure is a valve replacement.

The only way to do this before was open heart surgery, but for some patients that's just too risky. They may be frail, too sick, or have a weaker heartbeat that rules out that type of surgery.

Vasquez says in many cases, these patients' doctors wouldn't even refer them for surgery because they were considered "inoperable."

This new valve replacement procedure changes everything.

"What you're doing by having this technology available is you're opening the door for a lot of people who would otherwise not have been treated," said Vasquez.

The surgery required for this procedure is minimally invasive, so much that often patients can remain awake while it goes on. All that's required is a small incision in a leg or other place where a vein can be found to use to access the heart.

"It's amazing," said Vasquez. "You will be able to get up the next day and start walking."

Doctors guide a balloon catheter to the heart and open it in the aortic valve, after getting the heart pumping enough to create a space.

Stan Rowe, Chief Scientific Officer for Edwards Lifesciences, LLC which developed the technology explained how they insert the valve.

"We push that diseased valve out of the way, [insert the new valve,] and the new valve begins to work immediately," he said.

Vasquez reflected on the health change he's seen in patients as soon as the day after this surgery.

"They [notice] they can breathe, they have more energy," he said, noting how much better the quality of life becomes with a new valve.

Rowe said this only takes a team about an hour to complete. In comparison, open heart surgery takes about 3-4 hours and has a 5-7 day recovery period.

Rowe is a Huntsville native, and said his life here allowed him to grow up believing he could do anything. He and some colleagues built this company which has grown into a massive business, and nearly 150,000 of these types of procedures have already gone on across the United States.

"It's especially meaningful when you spend years of your life developing something like this and you really see it help these patients," he said.