The 90th Birthday That Almost Wasn’t

By Meredith Whittemore

Virgie Davis smiled as her family presented her 90th birthday cake – a vanilla cake with purple roses, her favorite color and her favorite flower. It was an especially poignant celebration because just a few months ago, her family worried the family matriarch might not make her milestone birthday.

“It started off with her being short-winded,” said Davis’ granddaughter, Natasha Kirkendoll. “We just thought she was getting older. But then she passed out at home and fell, and we knew something was really wrong.”

Physicians discovered multiple blockages in Davis’ heart, as well as congestive heart failure caused by aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve. They recommended Davis undergo surgery.

Davis underwent screening at The Heart Valve Clinic at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Southwest to determine the most appropriate course of care. The weekly clinic allows patients to undergo a variety of tests and meet with physicians all in one day.

“We know it can be a hassle for patients to schedule all the tests and physician consults. This setup allows us to more quickly assess a patient’s level of valve disease and the physicians can discuss which treatment route is best. Most patients can expect their results and recommended treatment plan within 24 to 48 hours,” said Smitha Thomas, MSN, RN, FNP-C, the clinic’s coordinator.

Physicians believed Davis was a good candidate for a TAVR, or transcatheter aortic valve replacement. TAVR is a minimally invasive procedure where a catheter inserted into a large artery in the leg is used to implant a new valve inside the aortic valve in the heart, essentially “assuming” the responsibilities of the old valve.

“Traditionally, valve replacement was done by opening the chest. However, that may not be a good option for patients for a variety of reasons. With TAVR, the valve is replaced using a catheter, which puts less stress on the heart. Patients often experience other benefits like less blood loss, faster recovery, and a shorter hospital stay compared to the traditional method,” said Marcin Bujak, MD, a cardiologist with Memorial Hermann Medical Group Southwest Cardiology.

Dr. Bujak also inserted two stents and a pacemaker during the procedure. 

Kirkendoll has seen a noticeable  improvement in her grandmother’s mobility.

“Just the other day she was able to walk to the bathroom and take a shower by herself. I know that sounds small, but we haven’t seen her walk like that in a very long time. She’s noticing all the things she can do herself and it’s great,” Kirkendoll said.

Davis’ story is a cautionary tale for other elderly individuals.

“A lot of patients attribute slowing down to aging or being overweight, especially if symptoms developed gradually. However, valve and heart disease are both issues that can develop over long periods of time,” Dr. Bujak said. “It’s important you speak to a primary care physician or a cardiologist if you find yourself getting winded more often, losing energy or having heart palpitations. Those are all signs of a potential heart or valve problem that needs to be checked out.”

Kirkendoll was just happy her grandmother was able to blow out the candles on her birthday cake.

“If it hadn’t been for the fast action of the physicians at Memorial Hermann, my grandmother probably would not have been here to see her 90th birthday. For that, we are forever grateful,” Kirkendoll said.

Learn more about TAVR at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute. Those interested in scheduling an appointment at the Heart Valve Clinic at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Southwest can call 713.778.2454.

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