For a pilot, there is no sweeter recovery than returning to the cockpit after being grounded with health issues. Scot Blesch continues his firsthand account on dealing with mitral valve regurgitation.
Cleveland Clinic’s website was our go-to site when my wife, Karen, and I were trying to get answers. Was there any way to avoid surgery? Was mitral valve repair a possibility for me?
Our research built our trust in Cleveland Clinic after looking at outcomes statistics for valve surgery and the likelihood of valve repair vs. replacement. We also learned that A. Marc Gillinov, MD, cardiac surgeon in Cleveland Clinic’s Heart & Vascular Institute, was the expert in mitral valve repair who had helped actor Robin Williams in 2009. So, we sent my medical records to Cleveland Clinic for evaluation.
We trusted Cleveland Clinic after looking at outcomes statistics for valve surgery.
A lasting first impression
When we made the appointment, we were counseled by phone by Cathy Kielar, practice nurse manager for Cardiothoracic Surgery, who really eased our anxieties. We drove our RV from Indiana to Cleveland Clinic, which provided us all of the comforts of home during our two-week stay.
When we met with Dr. Gillinov, he confirmed that the mitral valve might not be the cause of my rapid heartbeat, and that the repair surgery was the first step to see if the symptoms resolved. He then said something that got our attention. My mitral regurgitation had progressed to the point where, within 6 months, it would start damaging my heart. It was time to have the surgery.
My minimally invasive mitral valve repair
The surgery experience, while frightening, went very well. I was hospitalized for just four days for the minimally invasive mitral valve repair. Dr. Gillinov assured us that the surgery was straight-forward, and the valve was in good condition. And, even better news, the valve had never been infected as previously suspected.
But there was also some not-so-good news. After surgery, I had a rapid heartbeat. I was told this was normal after heart surgery, but my tachycardia symptoms seemed to get worse over time. After six months passed, Dr. Gillinov suggested that I consider an ablation and referred me to Walid Saliba, MD, Director of the Electrophysiology Lab at Cleveland Clinic.
Life has changed dramatically since
Relief after ablation
Four weeks of being on a heart monitor device showed a rapid heart rate of 180 beats per minute. Ablation surgery was scheduled for the spring.
We thought the valve repair was the answer, but it was just the beginning. After Dr. Saliba reviewed the case, he was confident he could help.
During an electrophysiology (EP) test, the tachycardia started up and doctors were able to isolate it and eliminate it in short order. Dr. Saliba told me he “got it” during the ablation, and that “it will not be back.”
My return to the cockpit
Life has changed dramatically since the ablation. I no longer have to take days off work because of extreme fatigue or heart palpitations. And I don’t need to take any medications. In every way, this was a miracle cure.
I was itching to get back in the air. After the required recovery period, I went to my cardiologist for a complete workup. I sent 2¼ pounds of medical records to the Airplane Owners & Pilots Association and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for medical review. I also passed a flight physical before being approved to fly again. This was 1 year, 1 month and 1 day after the valve repair.
The very next day, I took my wife for a long flight to celebrate.
Today, I take daily walks and my energy level is great. I’m also working on my commercial pilot’s license, which I did not previously pursue because of my condition. After 40 years, I’m no longer facing tachycardia.
My advice to pilots and patients
My message to pilots and anyone facing a heart condition: You can fly again and likely won’t even be grounded as long as I was. Don’t put off taking care of your health. And seek out the best resources like Cleveland Clinic. They gave me the best heart care possible—and they gave me back my wings.