Getting My Wings Back, Part I

A pilot’s journey from diagnosis to heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic

Pilot Scot Blesch gives this firsthand account on dealing with mitral valve regurgitation and his journey to getting back in the cockpit. 

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Now I can fly again. I got my wings back. I’m back in the air after mitral valve repair and ablation surgery—and after 2¼ pounds of medical records were reviewed and approved by the Federal Aviation Association (FAA). As a pilot of 25 years, who was “grounded” for a period of time because of my heart condition, there is no sweeter recovery than returning to the cockpit.

My journey with heart medical issues began at age 14, when I was diagnosed with a heart murmur that was eventually determined to be mitral valve regurgitation. That’s when the mitral valve does not close tightly, allowing the blood to flow back into the heart, which can cause shortness of breath and fatigue. Some days, I felt so weak and tired that I would stay home from work. But most days, I carried on with business as usual. I knew my limits, and when I felt my symptoms flare up, I’d take a time-out. Sometimes, my symptoms of rapid heartbeat would last minutes. Other times, they would last a whole day, and I’d be so tired that I would need to lie down. Most of the time, though, I felt pretty good.

“As a pilot, there is no sweeter recovery than returning to the cockpit.”

Eventually, in 1988 when I was in my early 30s, I earned my pilot’s license after passing the medical exam. I was given additional tests—an electrocardiogram (EKG) and echocardiogram—and I continued getting echocardiograms every few years. At that time, my heart condition was not progressing, so I continued to fly and manage my symptoms with diet and exercise. In 1993, I became an instrument rated pilot and flying became even more of a passion.

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Fighting Infection

Fifteen years later, my mitral regurgitation progressed to moderate, but my symptoms were not much different. I noticed the rapid heartbeat slightly more often. I was given a heart monitor to wear, which recorded my heart rhythm and sent data to my doctors for evaluation. The device revealed that I had a type of tachycardia, which is a faster than normal heart rate. I began seeing a cardiologist annually, but still there was no real change in my condition.

Then, my health took a turn for the worse in 2011 when I contracted a severe flu, which escalated into pneumonia. Though I recovered fully, several months later I had a nagging low-grade fever. My doctor, an internist and flying buddy, ordered blood cultures because he was vigilant about my heart condition. Everything looked normal, so I was given an antibiotic. But weeks later, the fever was back, and a second set of blood cultures revealed a staph infection. I was hospitalized the same day, but I felt fine.

Scot Blesch

Scot Blesch

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Doctors were “just sure” that my mitral valve was infected, but an esophageal echocardiogram did not show any “vegetation” on the valve. So, I was sent home with a portable IV of medication to treat an infection called staph capitis.

At that time, doctors suggested that I’d need a mitral valve replacement soon. And, after visiting my cardiologist that summer, he was convinced that surgery was the next step. Even though the echocardiogram looked no different than the prior year, he said it was possible that the mitral regurgitation had progressed to “severe” status. And who knows if the valve would get infected again. That is when my wife began researching Cleveland Clinic.

Tune in later today at 2:30 p.m. (ET) to learn how Scot got his wings back.

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