“Every day is a miracle!”

For three years, Barbara O’Brien slept in a chair because lying down meant she couldn’t breathe, and taking more than a couple steps was out of the question. Today, she feels reborn.

Health Monitor Staff
More Sharing +
Heart Valve

It’s coming on that time of year, and Barbara O’Brien is gearing up for the holiday greens sale to benefit her town’s beautification programs. Although the 88-year-old Northville, MI, resident is legally blind, that doesn’t stop her from winding up top sales gal year after year. “You find a way,” says Barbara. “I call my customers and get everybody and their brother to help me deliver!” 

But in 2011, a heart condition almost did stop her. After her seventh hospitalization with congestive heart failure caused by aortic stenosis—a stiffening and narrowing of the aortic valve—a hospital staffer suggested hospice care and presented her with a throw given to hospice patients. Barbara wasn’t offended. “I’d been on oxygen 24/7. I’d hold fluid. I could scarcely get to the bathroom. My heart valve wasn’t working.

“I knew how sick I was,” she adds. “I felt it was time.”

Her daughter, Julie Mantay, disagreed. While open-heart surgery was out of the question (Barbara has another health condition that would have made surgery too risky), “I could not believe that we were out of options!” says Julie. She asked her mom to hold off on hospice plans, went out to the hospital parking lot and dialed her cousin Steven Timmis, a cardiologist an hour across town at Beaumont Hospital. “I was devastated,” says Julia. But Dr. Timmis and his father, Dr. Gerald Timmis, Beaumont’s emeritus director of cardiovascular research, gave her a glimmer of hope.

“I put hospice on hold!”
Barbara learned there was another option: She might be a candidate for a less invasive procedure called transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR, where physicians thread a replacement valve through a catheter (a long tube) inserted either in the groin or through the chest cavity then into the heart. Once expanded, it pushes the leaflets of the diseased valve out of the way. After a number of tests, Barbara received the green light to undergo the procedure. “It was so easy—it’s unbelievable,” she says. “The incision in the groin didn’t hurt a bit. I was only in the hospital for a few days following the procedure.”
“I’m looking forward to another holiday”
Back at home, recovery was easy, but slow—not surprising given Barbara’s condition prior to the procedure. “I was still weak. I hadn’t done anything for a long time.” Family stayed close to check on her, and visiting nurses helped her for a month following her hospital release. In time, Barbara was able to move around her house, fix something to eat, do some light housekeeping—and make the rounds with her holiday greens.

Best of all, though—“our family has been able to celebrate three more years with my mom,” says Julie. Counters Barbara: “Julie deserves gold stars for all she does for me!”

October 2014