Methodist Healthcare
February 01, 2016

The labored breathing of Star Wars villain Darth Vader has real-life meaning for Juan Abrego, 83 and his daughter, Sarah. “Because of his heart disease, Dad was so winded that many times he could not even make it to the bathroom by himself,” explained Sarah. “I selected the sound of Darth Vardar as the ring tone for him on my cell phone so that I could respond quickly when he needed me. I tried to use it as a lighthearted way to let him know that his condition was serious and we needed to get help.”

Back from the Dark Side

Help came when Abrego’s cardiologist recommended transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), a new option for older, high risk or non-operative patients with severe aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve that restricts normal blood flow to the entire body. A resident of Del Rio, Mr. Abrego traveled to Methodist Hospital in San Antonio, the only private hospital in South Texas performing the procedure.

hospital staff in a surgery room

When he came in for his check-ups, clinic staff surprised him and his family with a cake decorated with the image of Darth Vader to symbolize how the procedure had taken him from the dark side of heart disease to good health in just two months.

“He no longer has symptoms of feeling like he can’t walk or can’t sleep at night because he was so short of breath,” said Jorge Alvarez, M.D., who performed the TAVR procedure on Mr. Abrego. “He no longer has chest pain. In fact, he’s now helping his grandson rebuild cars.”

The procedure is an important option for seniors. According to the National Institutes of Health, severe aortic stenosis is a major cause of morbidity and mortality in the elderly. Approximately 290,000 elderly patients with severe aortic stenosis are TAVR candidates. Nearly 27,000 patients become eligible for TAVR annually. After the onset of symptoms of severe aortic stenosis, patients have a survival rate as low as 50 percent at two years without valve replacement.

Like many elderly, Mr. Abrego was not a good candidate for conventional valve replacement surgery because his heart was weak. In the TAVR procedure, a diseased heart valve can be replaced without having to open the chest cavity, as in conventional replacement surgery. The new heart valve is deployed using a catheter though the femoral artery, apex of the heart, or through the ascending aorta. A TAVR procedure lasts about 2 hours compared to the conventional vascular access approach, which takes 4 to 5 hours.