The heart problem this stroke, bypass surgery survivor wasn't expecting

By American Heart Association News

Tom Broussard (left), at daughter Josiane's Ph.D. graduation, survived heart bypass surgery, stroke and heart valve disease. (Photo courtesy of Tom Broussard)
Heart disease and stroke survivor Tom Broussard with his daughter Josiane at her graduation. (Photo courtesy of Tom Broussard)

When Tom Broussard came out of quadruple heart bypass surgery, the then-59-year-old was just glad to have avoided a heart attack. So he didn't give much thought to the heart valve that surgeons replaced at the same time.

"I figured everything was fixed and didn't need to worry about it," Broussard said of the 2011 procedures.

A few months later, Broussard had a stroke caused by a clot that doctors suspect developed after his surgery. He spent the next 11 months relearning how to read, write and speak. He worked through other health challenges, including renal failure that caused him to lose a kidney.

So when Broussard, who lives in St. Augustine, Florida, started having trouble breathing in July 2017, he never imagined it could be from a problem with his heart valve.

Affecting about 2.5 percent of Americans, heart valve disease occurs when one or more of the heart valves have been damaged, disrupting blood flow by not opening or closing properly. Valve disease becomes more common with age, affecting about 13 percent of adults age 75 and older.

Yet awareness of heart valve problems is relatively low, in part because symptoms – which include shortness of breath and fatigue – aren't specific and may develop so slowly that they go unnoticed, said cardiologist Dr. Vuyisile T. Nkomo, director of the Valvular Heart Disease Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

"We often miss the window to offer lifesaving therapies because the condition is so severe it makes intervening too risky," Nkomo said.

Valve disease is often overlooked by health providers, especially in patients with competing conditions, making it underdiagnosed, Nkomo said. Patients, he said, should be aware of their risk factors and advocate for themselves. In addition to older age, risk factors for valve problems include previous heart valve issues, heart attack and heart failure.

When Broussard first noticed his symptoms, he thought it was a bad cold or the flu. But as the symptoms worsened, he made two visits to a clinic before going to the emergency room.

"I had to sleep sitting up because I felt like I was drowning," he said.

Testing showed fluid in his lungs, and his heart was straining. More tests showed the tissue-based aortic valve that had been placed six years earlier had failed.

Within a week, Broussard underwent a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR, a minimally invasive surgical procedure that wedges a replacement valve into the aortic valve's place through a catheter, similar to a stent placement.

The diagnosis took Broussard by surprise. After brushing off his first valve replacement, this time he was determined to learn all he could, including about how to control risk factors.

Broussard, now 66, exercises regularly, keeps his weight down and watches his diet. He also learned that his family history of heart disease – his dad died from a heart attack at age 49 – may have increased his risk.

"I wish I'd been told when my dad died that I could have heart disease and watched more closely," said Broussard, who now works to educate others as a Heart Valve Ambassador for the American Heart Association.

Even after his first heart valve surgery, Broussard said he didn't realize that he'd need to watch for symptoms over the years.

"Patients play an important role," he said. "Being vigilant and keeping track of your body and sharing any changes with your doctor is important."

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email [email protected].

American Heart Association News Stories

American Heart Association News covers heart disease, stroke and related health issues. Not all views expressed in American Heart Association News stories reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Statements, conclusions, accuracy and reliability of studies published in American Heart Association scientific journals or presented at American Heart Association scientific meetings are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect the American Heart Association’s official guidance, policies or positions.

Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. Permission is granted, at no cost and without need for further request, for individuals, media outlets, and non-commercial education and awareness efforts to link to, quote, excerpt from or reprint these stories in any medium as long as no text is altered and proper attribution is made to American Heart Association News.

Other uses, including educational products or services sold for profit, must comply with the American Heart Association’s Copyright Permission Guidelines. See full terms of use. These stories may not be used to promote or endorse a commercial product or service.

HEALTH CARE DISCLAIMER: This site and its services do not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your health care provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or call for emergency medical help immediately.