Seattle native Tom Ruttkay knew that he needed to pay close attention to his heart. About a decade ago, he experienced atrial fibrillation — a quivering or irregular heartbeat. He’s been on medication to control it ever since. But when the 77-year-old former University of Washington rowing champion noticed a significant lack of energy last year, he made an appointment with his Kaiser Permanente cardiologist, Timothy Dewhurst, MD.
Dr. Dewhurst performed an echocardiogram, which led to a surprising discovery: Calcium had built up on a valve in Ruttkay’s heart, causing it to malfunction. “It wasn’t pushing blood through my body as it should,” he says. “I could feel my heart really pounding hard.”
That valve needed to be replaced.
Not long ago, Ruttkay would have faced full, open-heart surgery and the prospect of a weeklong hospital stay. But thanks to the minimally invasive transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) procedure he was in and out of the hospital — with a brand-new valve — in little more than 24 hours.
His surgery was possible thanks to the Structural Heart Program, a collaboration between Kaiser Permanente and Overlake Medical Center. A team of interventional and imaging cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, anesthesiologists, and advanced registered nurse practitioners (ARNP) performs minimally invasive procedures — such as TAVR. Together, they review cases and develop treatment plans. Then they work side-by-side in a specially designed procedure room that combines a heart surgery suite and a catherization lab.
During a TAVR procedure, the team uses real-time imaging to guide the replacement valve through the vascular system to the heart via a catheter. Once the valve is in position, the doctor uses special tools to press it into place. The new valve begins working immediately.
“The TAVR process is absolutely astounding,” Ruttkay says. “They went in through the artery in my groin. I didn’t even feel it. And before I knew it, they were finished, and my heart was pumping normally again.”
During his recovery, he didn’t have any pain — he just had to keep an eye on the incision in his groin. Since then, he’s been focused on getting back into shape.
“Before TAVR, I couldn’t walk 30 feet without becoming breathless,” he says. “In fact, I needed a wheelchair when I arrived for the procedure. Since then, I’m back to lifting weights and walking every day. I even drove to Portland to visit my daughter and her family.”
Praise for the team
Ruttkay’s surgery was performed by Kaiser Permanente interventional cardiologist Scott Haugen, MD.
“As technology grows and develops, we expect more minimally invasive procedures and techniques will become available,” Dr. Haugen says. “And as more data is gathered and examined, existing procedures will be approved for more patients. That’s good news for everyone.”
All of this makes for satisfied patients and families.
“TAVR has given me a second chance at life,” Ruttkay says. “I’m throwing away the guidebook I’ve used for 70-plus years to start a new one. The sky is the limit for me now.”
* Results based on the STS/ACC Transcatheter Valvular Therapeutics (TVT) database.
Want more local health news, wellness tips, recipes, and more? Subscribe to the Kaiser Permanente Washington newsletter.