Most patients with severe aortic valve problems have known for a while that something was wrong. Sometimes they'll blame old age or being out of shape for their shortness of breath and chest discomfort. It is nevertheless a shock to hear your doctor say that you have a serious heart problem and you need an operation sooner rather than later.
Aortic valve problems can be summarized in three basic types:
Aortic Valve Stenosis. The valve becomes increasingly stiff and calcified to the point that it can no longer open up. Most patients are feeling symptoms of fatigue and get short of breath very easily. Your doctor might talk about 'severe' or 'critical' aortic stenosis and will tell you that you need to see a heart surgeon to set a date for the operation
Aortic Valve Insufficiency. The valve has the opposite problem. It cannot close well and therefore 'leaks' a lot. Most patients might still feel OK even with severe leakage but they SHOULD NEVER WAIT until they get short of breath because by the time they have symptoms their heart might be enlarged with permanent damage
A combination of #1 and #2
Once you or someone in your family are told that an open heart operation is needed it is time to take a deep breath and explore all surgical options available. Chances are that your local cardiologist and heart surgeon would offer an aortic valve operation carried out through a sternotomy, a midline split up and down your chest through your breast bone. That is your cue to address the question about minimally invasive options and insist on them. Unfortunately many surgeons out there did not have the opportunity, the willingness or the time to master these new techniques. They might even tell you that it cannot be done. There is plenty of written information online and even surgical videos showing how a minimally invasive aortic valve replacement is routinely performed. Here are a few points to remember about this less invasive option:
The entire operation is carried out through a 2' incision between the ribs on the right side of the chest. There is no breast bone breaking or 'cracking of the chest' involved
This minimally invasive approach allows a fast recovery. Most patients can go back home two days after surgery
The risk of bleeding, infection or faulty wound healing is much, much less than it would be through a breast bone splitting operation
Cosmetic results are obviously superior with up to 95% of patients reporting a high level of satisfaction
Patients enjoy the same long term benefits of the traditional aortic valve replacement surgery and all the benefits of a less invasive, 'soft touch' techniques
If we are told that you need a heart valve operation look into a minimally invasive option. If it is not offered in your region or your doctors are not familiar with these options, consider traveling to a reputable minimally invasive heart surgery center to enjoy the benefits of these modern techniques. Most patients can travel back to their home state within a week to ten days.