Fixing a broken heart
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When he’s on the job, Damian Simcox is almost always on the go. As director of facilities for University of Iowa Athletics, he ensures that the Hawkeye sports teams have fully functioning stadiums, arenas, ballparks, and practice and training facilities.
It’s a job he loves, but one that requires handling multiple responsibilities and shifting priorities on a daily basis. So when Simcox, 44, learned in 2011 that he needed surgery to repair a leaky heart valve, “It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear,” he says. Weeks, or even months, spent recovering from heart surgery was a concern.
Luckily for Simcox, UI Heart and Vascular Center at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics has been performing minimally invasive heart valve surgery since 2008 — the only hospital in the region to consistently do so — and is the first program in the nation to receive certification for its cardiac valve repair and replacement program.
News of Simcox’s heart condition hadn’t come as a total surprise. Ten years earlier, during a routine checkup at the UI Family Care Center, Simcox learned that he had a heart murmur, an extra or unusual sound that can be detected when listening to a heartbeat.
“My little mouse-squeak,” Simcox says.
Follow-up tests showed that the murmur was due to mitral valve prolapse, which occurs when the valve between the heart’s left upper chamber (left atrium) and left lower chamber (left ventricle) doesn’t close properly. For many people, it’s a non-threatening condition; for others, including Simcox, it can allow blood to leak backward into the left atrium, which may require treatment.
Considering that he was in his 30s and his overall health was good, his UI physician recommended “keeping an eye on it,” Simcox says. He returned periodically for follow-up tests, but otherwise, “I didn’t worry too much about it,” he acknowledges.
Things changed in the spring of 2011, following new tests to check the progression of Simcox’s prolapse. His UI family physician referred him to UI Heart and Vascular Center specialists, including cardiac surgeon Robert Saeid Farivar, assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery in the UI Carver College of Medicine. Farivar found that the mitral valve leakage had become more pronounced, enlarging the left side of Simcox’s heart. Left untreated, it could lead to congestive heart failure.
Surgery was recommended and, fortunately, Simcox was a good candidate for the minimally invasive surgery. Traditional mitral valve repair surgery involves a six- to eight-inch vertical incision along the patient’s sternum to split the breastbone and gain access to the heart. The minimally invasive procedure, by comparison, is exactly that — in this case, it required a mere two-inch incision on his right side, just under the breast. Special instruments are used through the incision to perform the mitral valve repair.
For patients, the benefits of the minimally invasive surgery are key, Farivar notes.
“With this technique, patients can expect less postoperative pain and a smaller scar, plus a shorter hospital stay and faster recovery compared to the traditional approach,” he says. “I have patients who are simply amazed at how quickly they can return to their normal routines.”
Simcox was home just three days after the surgery. Pain was “not an issue,” he says, noting that after a few days following the procedure he no longer needed prescribed pain medications. Within two weeks he returned to work, albeit with some restrictions on strenuous physical activity.
He also enrolled in an outpatient rehab and exercise program through UI Heart and Vascular Center called CHAMPS (Cardiovascular Health, Assessment, Management, and Prevention Service) that helped him regain full strength. Today, he says he feels great and the outlook is good — reassuring news for Simcox as well as his wife, Dana, and two kids, McKenna and Brady.
Choosing the minimally invasive approach for his mitral valve repair was a no-brainer, Simcox says.
“To recover so much more quickly and not be in much pain has been great,” he says, “and to get back to my normal routine so much faster — that’s the biggest plus.”