JoAnne Williams jokes about her fourth heart valve replacement operation. “I’ve had a pig valve and now I’ve got a cow valve,” she says with a gentle laugh. “I’ve got a whole farm inside me.”
The spirited 74-year-old grandmother from Louisville, Ky., laughs about her heart procedure now. But in early 2009 when her third replacement valve began to fail, her outlook was anything but sunny. Her doctors tried to dissuade her from getting an aortic valve replacement and tricuspid valve repair. They thought her heart was too weak to survive a fourth heart operation and the risk was too high.
“Every other breath I was coughing, and sometimes I coughed up blood. I was at a point where I didn’t know whether I’d live or go on to Heaven,” says the deeply religious woman. “I thought, if the Lord wants me to go on, He’ll find a way to do it.”
Doctors had discovered Ms. Williams’ heart damage in 1958, when she delivered her first child. She’d had rheumatic fever as a young girl, but physicians had never detected any tissue injury during previous examinations.
The mitral valve was repaired. Then in 1982, doctors replaced it with a pig valve. When that valve failed in 1991, it was replaced with a mechanical valve. Because rheumatic heart disease affects all of the heart’s valves, she began to have narrowing of the aortic valve and progressive heart failure. Her heart dilated (enlarged) which caused the tricuspid valve to begin to fail.
“By this time, I had two pacemakers and so much scar tissue, my doctors were hesitant to try another operation,” she says.
But Ms. Williams’ daughter wasn’t ready to give up. She and her mother’s cardiologist researched heart valve replacement surgery on the Internet and discovered Douglas Johnston, MD, a heart surgeon at the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute at Cleveland Clinic.
“I got a good feeling talking to him,” she remembers. “He sounded very sincere when he said he thought he could help me.”
Dr. Johnston performed the about 7-hour long, fourth-time redo aortic valve replacement and tricuspid valve repair in April 2009. “Dr. Johnston was wonderful,” she says. “Everyone at the Clinic was helpful and generous. They made me feel at home with all their caring and concern.”
Today, after undergoing 32 weeks of cardiac rehabilitation, she’s joined a neighborhood gymnasium, where she walks every day. Her husband, Calvin, a retired ironworker, accompanies her.
And, weather permitting, she’s out doing her favorite activity: gardening. “I love growing flowers,” she says. “I especially like Easter Lilies, because they’re bright and beautiful in the spring.”