Brian Schilling didn’t know anything was wrong when he went in for his regular physical.
“I didn’t notice anything different,” says Schilling, a 63-year-old Eau Claire, Wisconsin, resident. “I didn’t feel sick.”
But, unbeknownst to Schilling, there was a problem lurking in one of the valves in his heart.
“I listened to his heart and could hear an abnormal sound,” says Glenn Kauppila, D.O., who performed Schilling’s physical at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire. “Instead of the normal lub-dub sound of a heartbeat, it was a whooshing sound.” Dr. Kauppila referred Schilling to cardiologist Andrew Calvin, M.D., who ordered an echocardiogram — an ultrasound for the heart.
Schilling elected not to mention the issue or the test to his wife, who was going on a weeklong trip.
“I figured the test would turn out fine,” Schilling says.
But it didn’t. The test showed Schilling’s heart murmur was a sign of a dangerous condition.
“We saw that his heart function was slightly abnormal,” says Dr. Calvin. “His mitral valve appeared partially broken and was leaking.” Dr. Calvin performed a second echo test, called a transesophageal echocardiogram, which gives a 3-D picture of the heart valve. This showed that indeed there was a broken heart valve as feared.
“Left untreated, his heart would have gradually weakened and he would have become progressively short of breath,” Dr. Calvin says. “The condition would eventually have taken his life.”
Schilling underwent a minimally invasive mitral valve repair, using just a 1 ½ inch incision on his upper chest, which allowed him to recover more quickly.
“It was unbelievable how quickly I felt better,” says Schilling, who was back to working half days by week four and full time by week five. After completing a 12-week cardiac rehabilitation program, he says he now is more active than before the surgery.
If there is one lesson people take away from Schilling’s story, Dr. Kauppila says it should be the importance of having regular checkups.
“After age 50, you should have a checkup once a year,” Dr. Kauppila says. “We do a review of all the body’s systems to see if there have been any changes and to detect if any issues have arisen.”
Dr. Calvin says bringing a patient successfully through all of those stages — from the initial diagnosis to the echocardiogram, the surgery and rehabilitation — takes the cooperation of many dedicated professionals.
“Medicine is a team sport,” Dr. Calvin says.
Schilling has praise for the team who brought him through his long journey to better health.
“Had they not caught it as early as they did, I could have had significant heart problems,” says Schilling. “I was comforted, knowing the team here and the experience they had. I went into it believing it would be OK and I would be in good hands.”
Schilling calls the experience a wake-up call, reminding him to take some time to enjoy life. For him, that means spending time with his wife, son, daughter and granddaughter, and boating and fishing.
“You need to keep it all in balance,” Schilling says.
Join in the fight against heart disease and stroke, the nation's No. 1 and No. 4 killers, respectively. Find a Heart Walk near you.