EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Discomfort when driving, a strange sensation in her chest when nervous or stressed, fatigue at the end of a long day — little did Carolyn Nicolet know these seemingly ordinary symptoms were subtle signs of big trouble.
“The moral of the story is you shouldn’t ignore your body,” says Nicolet, a 54-year-old bookkeeper, wife and mother of three from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
It was only through a routine physical that Nicolet learned she had a cardiac condition called mitral valve prolapse, which was causing the heart murmur her primary care physician detected during her examination. An echocardiogram two days later revealed a severe leak in her mitral valve. She needed surgery.
But instead of having an invasive surgery in which the surgeon splits a patient’s breastbone to access the heart, Nicolet underwent a minimally invasive mitral valve repair procedure. With this method, doctors make a much smaller incision — less than 3 inches — on the right side of the chest, avoiding the need to crack the breastbone. Doing so speeds recovery, leaves less of a scar and reduces the chance of infection.
Nicolet’s surgery was on Feb. 5. Weeks later in April, she was well enough to travel internationally to visit her son, who was studying abroad in Paris, France.
“They were very accommodating,” Nicolet says of her medical team. “They did my surgery right away, which was very nice, so I would be recovered and could travel. My grandbaby was coming at the same time, too, so it was perfect.”
From her cardiologist’s perspective, the surgery and associated recovery were ideal.
“It’s just amazing to consider that somebody went from open-heart valve replacement surgery to doing anything she wanted to within a matter of weeks,” says Andrew Calvin, M.D., a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.
Dr. Calvin explains that the mitral valve keeps blood from flowing backwards from the main pumping chamber of the heart. Mitral valve prolapse occurs when the valve goes backward and leaks blood from the ventricle, backing up into the lungs and making people feel short of breath. If left untreated, the heart can weaken, so Dr. Calvin says it was critical Nicolet listened to her body and saw a doctor when she did.
“If this leaky heart valve isn’t fixed, the heart enlarges and may suffer permanent damage, so early detection is key,” he says.
Robert Wiechmann, M.D., a cardiovascular surgeon at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire who performed Nicolet’s procedure, says the minimally invasive approach brings “such an advantage” to patients, particularly those who are young and active.
“People are back to normal activity in several weeks as opposed to several months, and there’s essentially no risk of wound infection,” Dr. Wiechmann says.
He applauds Nicolet for her part in the successful sequence of events.
“Carolyn’s surgery was great. It was just how you want it,” he says. “She’s a positive, motivated, young, healthy person, and a lot of the credit goes to her for her great attitude and her will to get better.”
Nicolet, however, shifts the credit back to her medical team.
“Everyone was fabulous. I can’t sing their praises enough,” she says. “Sometimes I forget that I even had it done. It was a great experience.”
Sidebar: The Eau Claire Heart Walk will be held Saturday, Sept. 24, at Carson Park. All funds raised will go to the American Heart Association. Registration begins at 8 a.m., the walk begins at 9 a.m. Learn more about the Eau Claire Heart Walk.
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Mayo Clinic Health System consists of clinics, hospitals and other facilities that serve the health care needs of people in 60 communities in Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The community-based providers, paired with the resources and expertise of Mayo Clinic, enable patients in the region to receive the highest-quality health care close to home.