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By ROBERT VILLANUEVA
ELIZABETHTOWN — “I had my first surgery at 3 days old,” Laura Lowe, 33, said as she sat at a picnic table at Freeman Lake Park.
Lowe was what was known as a “blue baby,” a condition which occurs when tissues and organs of the body don’t get enough oxygen.
Born about noon on Feb. 3, 1975, Laura’s heart stopped several times that the day.
“Somewhere about midnight that night I was taken to Louisville,” Lowe said.
Because the Elizabethtown resident was born with severe valvular pulmonary stenosis, Laura had to have a valvotomy, a procedure to stretch a valve opening. VPS is a condition in which the valve is too narrow to allow proper blood flow.
But the surgery was just one in a long list of medical procedures Laura has dealt with as an adult with a congenital heart defect.
After a lifetime of hospitals and surgeries, Laura is now recuperating from her latest surgery — performed on March 25 — in which her pulmonary valve was replaced with one made from cow tissue.
“I didn’t realize how difficult recovery would be,” Laura said, citing soreness and lack of endurance.
Among other things, Laura was not allowed to drive for six weeks after the operation. During the valve replacement, Laura also had procedures to correct an inverted sternum, remove a wire from a defibrillator she once had implanted and create scar tissue to block bad electrical impulses from getting out to prevent atrial tachycardia.
“This is my best friend,” Laura said, hugging a red heart-shaped pillow. “You use that for your coughing, sneezing and your laughing because it hurts.”
The pillow, from The Children’s Hospital of The Cleveland Clinic, carried a hand-written message: “Best to you from OR51!” Hospital personnel signed the pillow.
ONE-IN-A-MILLION CHANCE. Laura’s mother, Sandi Lowe, said she remembered her daughter having to be taken to a Louisville hospital while she had to stay at Hardin Memorial Hospital because of health problems.
“It was scary,” Sandi said.
Though her oldest son had been diagnosed with mild valvular pulmonary stenosis, Sandi said she had been told it was a birth defect with a “one-in-a-million” chance of her having another child with the condition.
At one point, when Laura was living in Idaho and going through a particularly bad time, Sandi received a call from her daughter who said, “Mom, please come before I die.”
As the parent of an adult with CHD, Sandi said the experience was “mentally stressful.”
“You wish you could snap your fingers and take it away,” Sandi said.
out with the old valve. As she sat at the park, Laura displayed items that represented her latest trial. Scattered on the picnic table before her were a breathing apparatus, a book about heart surgery and her friend Dapper Dan, a stuffed toy dog.
Dapper Dan, she said, was given to her in 1979 for one of her earliest open heart surgeries when she was just 4 years old. She kept the stuffed animal with her at the hospital.
Laura’s pulmonary valve was removed during the operation.
“You can live without it,” she said.
But by not having that valve, other problems arise.
“As I got older I started to have arrhythmia,” Laura said.
ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER. What followed were a stroke in 2004 and then bouts with tachycardia. Tachycardia is a heart rate of more than 100 beats per minute while at rest.
In February 2004 Laura had a transcatheter closure of the Patent Foramen Ovale, a hole in the heart infants have while in the womb that was supposed to close at birth. The transcatheter device travels through the groin into the heart and closes off the hole.
Between the fall of 2004 and spring of 2005, Laura’s tachycardia attacks possibly were a type called ventricular tachycardia.
“VT is very dangerous,” Laura said. “It can cause sudden death.”
Laura was put on heart medication in May 2005.
In November 2006, she was fitted with an implantable cardio defibrillator. After several problems with the device — which necessitated surgery more than once — she had the ICD removed in July 1007. Doctors left a wire in, in case she needed to have another one implanted later.
doctors turn to cow hearts. Last year, Laura met with several doctors to determine if it was the right time for a pulmonary valve replacement. Timing, she said, is critical because getting the procedure too early would involve more future replacements than if it is done later in life. Replaced valves generally last 10-15 years.
Dr. Muhammad A. Mumtaz of The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio performed Laura’s pulmonary valve replacement surgery. Using cow tissue for the procedure is “reasonably common,” he said.
The most common pulmonary valve replacement uses a human valve, with pig valves being the second most common.
“Cow’s valve has been quite popular in other areas of the heart,” Mumtaz said.
Mumtaz performed the pulmonary valve replacement on Laura’s beating heart.
“The least amount of risk is when you don’t have to use the heart-lung machine,” Mumtaz said. The majority of open heart surgeries are done with the heart stopped, which he said can be riskier when trying to get the heart started again.
“Her prognosis is excellent,” Mumtaz said.
‘MY HEART, I THINK, IS THANKING ME.’ Just weeks after the surgery, Laura said she already could feel a difference. She felt better.
“I’m very happy with the decision I made,” Laura said. “My heart, I think, is thanking me for it.”
Sandi credits “family, friends and prayer” with getting everybody through the battle. Laura called her family and friends “amazing.”
Her experience as an adult with a congenital heart defect has made Laura aware of how unprepared the medical community is in dealing with adult CHD patients. There is no specialized training for CHD cardiologists for dealing with adult CHD patients. That’s why Laura’s operation was performed in the Children’s Hospital of the Cleveland Clinic.
“There’s a lot of training to deal with children but not a lot trained to handle the problems that arise when the child becomes an adult,” Laura said.
For people with CHD, the issues are ongoing.
“It’s a lifetime,” Laura said.
Organizations such as the Adult Congenital Heart Association, the Children’s Heart Foundation and the American Heart Foundation are good resources for people dealing with CHD, she said.
Laura wants to be a role model for children with CHD, so they are “not ashamed or afraid, but to be proud that they are unique and they are special.”
“They are survivors,” Laura said.
Robert Villanueva can be reached at (270) 505-1743.