Minimally Invasive Heart Surgery Helps Father of 10 Return to His Busy Lifestyle

By Jade Waddy

Phillip Sontag, 63, led an active and busy life as a father of 10 and a grandfather of six, so he was surprised to notice he no longer had the energy to do certain things.

“I was having a lot of shortness of breath,” Sontag said. “It was very difficult to take a good deep breath and it felt like pushing a rock up a hill.”

Sontag also noticed he was regularly experiencing severe fatigue. He listened to his body and visited his primary care physician who recommended he see Dr. James O’Neil, an interventional cardiologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center.

“When my cardiologist told me I had a leaky mitral heart valve, I was completely shocked and surprised,” Sontag said. “My wife was shocked. It was just not what I thought I would ever experience.”

A leaky mitral heart valve, or mitral regurgitation, is a condition in which the heart’s mitral valve doesn’t close tightly, allowing blood to flow backward and reducing the blood flow to the rest of the body and causing the heart to pump harder.  

During Sontag’s initial consultation with Dr. O’Neil, Sontag remembers the cardiologist placing the stethoscope on his chest and declaring, “Wow! You’ve got a rock concert going on in there!” Dr. O’Neil referred Sontag to Dr. Tom Nguyen, cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon affiliated with Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute to discuss options for repairing his leaky heart valve.

“As Mr. Sontag’s heart valve would squeeze, I noticed that a lot of his blood would go backward into his lungs, which is a dangerous problem to have,” Dr. Nguyen said.

Sontag had researched his options for surgery when he was first diagnosed and came to Dr. Nguyen, director of Minimally Invasive Valve Surgery at UTHealth, wanting to learn more about the minimally invasive options available. After their consultation, Dr. Nguyen also knew he did not want to perform surgery that would require him to open Sontag’s chest and break his breast bone.

Less than two months later, Sontag underwent surgery.

Dr. Nguyen accessed the mitral valve through a 5-centimeter incision on the right side of Sontag’s chest. Sontag was left with an incision that was approximately five centimeters long.

“The recovery time is less than half of that of open heart surgery and I was ready to keep going, so the faster I could get back on the road, the better!” Sontag said.

Sontag said he is fortunate to have found his physicians.

“When I first sought out a surgeon I thought I would talk to several to get options, but as soon as I met with Dr. Nguyen, I knew he was the doctor for me,” Sontag said.

Since the surgery, Sontag has been able to resume activities, such as walking his dog, biking and being active in the busy lives of his children and grandchildren.

“I immediately felt a change after the surgery,” Sontag said.

To learn more about treatment options available at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute visit

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