Farmer & Triathlete, John O’Neill, Shares Inspirational Heart Valve Surgery Story

There is nothing better than waking up, kissing Ethan (my 6-week old son), turning on my computer, and opening an incredible email from one of my readers.

That said, I thought you might like to read this inspirational note from John O’Neill. As you can see, John discusses many of the experiences common to heart valve surgery patients – including symptoms, diagnosis, surgical care, genetics, recovery, cardiac rehab, Coumadin, etc. So, with John’s permission, I am posting his email below:

Triathlete After Heart Valve Surgery Patient In Hospital
John O’Neill – Bicuspid Valve Replacement Patient

Hi Adam,

I am a 57-year old farmer, runner, triathlete from West Central Minnesota. I can’t begin to explain what an asset your book has been to me and my family.  I have passed it on to people I know who are having heart valve surgery.

I had a bicuspid aortic valve replaced with a mechanical aortic valve, aneurysm repair and one bypass done by Dr. Hartzell Schaff and Dr. Jess Thompson at the Mayo Clinic on April 27, 2009.

I have never before experienced doctors who made me feel that I was the most important person they had to deal with.  Doctors Schaff and Thompson took all the time in the world to answer the questions both I and my family had.  The care I received there was second-to-none. The nursing staff are also the “best of the best”.

Dr. Hartzell Schaff
Dr. Hartzell Schaff

One thing I learned that I haven’t seen you address is that bicuspid valves are hereditary and my siblings, children and grandchildren have a twenty-five percent chance of also having a bicuspid aortic valve and are now in the process of being screened for it.

I was lucky enough to pass out right after a 2.1 mile race in Spicer, Minnesota on January 24, 2009. Even though it was -26 degrees below zero I chose to find out why it happened. I was fortunate to find a cardiologist, Dr. Gura at Mayo, who is a runner and triathlete and just a couple years older than me.

Dr. Gura found the problem right away.  Now, if any other members of my family have symptoms they will be able to monitor it and take care of it timely.


John’s Family

I am now on blood thinners (Coumadin) for the rest of my life and it doesn’t seem to be all that tough to deal considering my lifestyle and love of leafy green vegetables fresh from the garden.  I am in cardiac rehab and they are doing a good job of getting me back up and running.  Today, I am going to run (walk) the 3.1K Memorial day race in Willmar.

Thanks again for all the valuable information in your heart valve surgery book!

John O’Neill

P.S. As an update to this story, John just emailed me… He finished the 3.1K race in 1 hour and 10 minutes! He writes, “We were the last ones but it felt wonderful.”

Adam Pick
Written by Adam Pick

Adam Pick is a patient, author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery and the founder of HeartValveSurgery.com.

To learn how Adam has helped millions of people with heart valve disease, watch Adam's video, subscribe to his free newsletter, or visit his Facebook, or Twitter pages.

  • Jason Lim

    Dear John,

    Happy recovery…
    By the way …is it a open heart or minimally invasive surgery ?
    Take care and best of health…

    regarsd,
    Jasom Lim
    Kuala Lumpur,Malaysia

  • John O’Neill

    Hi Jasom
    It was open heart. I could not believe how fast it healed up with almost no scab. That line down my chest in the picture is the incision.
    John O’Neill

  • Micki Novak

    John…. Happy recovery and congratulations on finishing the walk(run). Be proud. Your posting came at just the right time. My surgery is scheduled for June 1st…one more week. It is through Adam’s website, book and other’s stories, that I am more ready to face what is instore for me. I,too, am having my surgery at one of the best hospitals in Illinois and by one of the top 8 cardiac surgeons in the state. I know I will be in good hands, as I have experienced nothing but the best during my visits, testing and educational classes provided by the hospital. Thank you so much. Keep on walking… I hope I can be that far along in my recovery as quickly as you have. Best of everything.

  • Nancy J. Scharf

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR COMMENTS TODAY. I HAVE HAD A MITRAL COMMISSUROTOMY (1972) WITH A TOP-NOTCH SURGEON IN EAST CHICAGO, IN. IN 2001 I HAD A MITRAL VALVE REPLACEMENT WHICH WAS SUCCESSFUL BUT A BAD EXPERIENCE WITH POST OP CARE AND MANY COMPLICATIONS WHICH RESULTED IN A SIGNIFICANTYLY LONG RECOVERY TIME. \
    I HAVE YET MORE OPEN HEART SURGERY AHEAD OF ME FOR REPLACEMENT OF MY AORTIC VALVE. THUS, MY APPRECIATION OF YOU SHARING YOUR RECENT EXPERIENCE WITH MAYO CLINIC, THEIR RESIDENT SURGEONS AND YOUR EXCELLENT POST-OP CARE.
    YOU HAVE HELPED ME TO MAKE THE DEFINITE DECISION TO HAVE MY AORTIC VALVE REPLACEMENT AT MAYO CLINIC.

    I SINCERELY THANK YOU FOR SHARING.

  • Kim Roden

    Hello-
    Happy Recovery!

    I do not normally post to blogs but I found this through a websearch. My husband was diagnosed with a valve problem in his late teens and has gone through several screens throughout his life. During a recent screen they found the heart to be “moderately” enlarged. They did a TEE and we were just told that he will need surgery within the next few months to fix a bicuspid valve. He also had ulcerative colitis as a child and has an ileostomy. Are any of you aware of any additional problems he will face because of the illeostomy? Also we are concerned because after years of the wait and see approach everything is moving so fast. Should we ask for there to be a delay and continue screenings or just go ahead with it. He does not have any symptoms. I have ordered Adam’s book and plan on reading it as soon as it arrives. We also have a 20 month old son. Should we have him checked out by a pediatric cardiologist or can his regular pediatrician help us. Whatever guidance anyone can give would be most appreciated it. We are kind of in shock right now.
    Thank you.

  • Dr. Marc Gerdisch

    Kim,
    I just happened on to your post. Adam sent me an email letting me know he had added my valve surgery video to the blog, so I was looking around. I can offer the following with respect to your husband.
    Valve surgery is rarely an emergency, but when there are changes in the function or dimensions of the heart, it is usually time to move ahead. These changes can occur without symptoms. It is important to time surgery properly so as to not have permanent deterioration in heart function, for which he may be asymptomatic but which may eventually decrease his exercise capacity or shorten his life. That said, elective heart valve surgery allows time to thoughtfully choose surgical approach and the type of valve to be implanted (assuming the valve is not best repaired), as well as a complete assesment of the other valves. Because your husband has a history of ulcerative colitis, there needs to be a thorough discussion regarding valve type and plans for anticoagulation. Lastly, whatever valve is used, make sure the surgeon is comfortable that he/she will implant a valve of adequate dimension, with no chance of patient-prosthesis mismatch (a valve that is too small).
    Good Luck
    Marc

  • Kim Roden

    Dr. Gerdisch-

    Thank you so much for your reply. It was a big help. I am compiling my list of questions for the cardiac surgeon now.

    Thanks again.

    Kim

  • Donna

    Thanks for sharing your story here! My husband had aortic valve replacement in 2005 & we did not have insurance coverage for the rehab. He received a porcine valve and will be 50 in Sept. We are hoping the valve lasts awhile. I’m doing my best to have him take walks with me, but he sometimes struggles with depression. Our doctor will not put him on an antidepressant and I am not sure St John’s wart (1/20th the strength of Prozac) will do the trick. Any suggestions?

  • Donna

    I have one additional question to add here. My husband was told he has developed asthma last year as a result of his Nov. 2005 surgery. Is this a common condition following open heart surgery?

    Also, a question for Micki Novack. Would you mind sharing the hospital in IL where you plan to have your surgery in a couple of days when possible? My husband had his done in Rockford, IL.

    Thanks!
    Donna

  • Frank F

    Hello John,
    Glad to hear your treatment has been successful and recovering well.
    I am just curious to hear why you made the decision to go with a mechanical valve, since based on my findingds, there are tissue valve products available from both Edwards lifesciences and St Jude medical, that potentially can provide in excess of 20 years of service. Although this can not be a proven fact, since these valves are either less than 5 years old (Magna by Edwards) or in study stage (Trifecta) by St. Jude medical. I will need aortic valve replacement in the next couple of months and trying to finalize my decision about the type of valve to select.

  • John O’Neill

    Hi Frank!
    My surgeon, Dr Schaff, recomended the mechanical valve beause of my lifestyle and activity level as a hands-on do-it-yourself farmer who runs, swims, or bikes a couple hours a day. He did not feel an animal valve would last long enough for my age and activity level. I like to eat, and 10 years ago I lost 100 lbs. If I want to stay at 185 lbs., I must exercise. I hope to soon be back racing 5ks, 10ks, sprint and olympic triathlons. My big goal is to become an ironman someday.
    I really didn’t do a lot of research on valves, I just relied on my surgeon’s recomendation after a lengthy discussion with him and my cardiologist.
    Technology is changing so fast that in the future this surgery will probably be less invasive and there will be many more options. I am sure what ever option you choose will be good and in ten years we may all be having something changed. So go with what you feel is best for you and good luck!
    John O’Neill

  • steve lewis

    My name is Steve, I am in the hospital now awaiting my valve replacement and trying to decide mechanical or tissue vavle replacement for my bicuspid aortic valve, I am trying to filter through all of the information to base my decision on. I will be trying to get my hands on the book as soon as possible.Today is June 2, 2009. I am waiting for my PIT (Platlet inhibition test- because of Plavix)to drop low enough to have the surgery, and on top of all of that I must have a Triple Bypass to go with it. Does anyone have anything to say??? I am a 47 year old male, reasonably healthy and reasonably active…

  • Stephen Waxman

    I am 58 years old and at 37 I had my second aortic valve replacement at the Ottawa Heart Institute.My first operation at 30 involved a tissue vlave which unfortunately only lasted 7 years. My St jude mechanical valve will be 21 years old in November. I will probably need another replacement in about 5 years. I highly recommend that patients who need aortic valve replacement (and who are relatively young) consider a mechanical valve. Medical evidemce suggests that these vlaves last longer than tissue valves and further, it has been my experience that long term coumadin anti-coagulation is easily tolerated.

  • peter k

    Dear John:

    Glad to hear that you are doing so well. I am 60years old and just told I need a double bi-pass and new valve. I have a handyman company and therefore tend to minor cut and bruise myself often. Since you are a farmer, I would think that you too tend to cut and bruise yourself. My concern about being on a mechanical valve is the coumadin factor. Is this a consideration for you and how to you handle it? I have spoken to the doctors about this but want to hear from someone who actually has to deal with this on a daily basis.

    Thanks
    peter

  • John O’Neill

    Dear Peter,

    I have really not had much experience with cuts and scrapes yet as I am just returning to some lite work like truck driving hauling grain and supporting the sprayer. I will start working on equipment soon though. So far scrapes and scratches haven’t bled any worse than before. I told my surgeon, when we discussed Coumadin that I was constantly banging my self up in the past and tended to do some dumb things, he assured me that I could still do all of that, except It will just take a little longer for the blood to clot.
    So far I have been having my INR levels tested weekly at the local Anticoagulation Clinic where they do a finger prick. We have been changing Coumadin dosages as I have been in my range only about fifty percent of the time. They say this will get better as my other medications become more constant.
    One of my concerns is before I go in for my colonoscopy my cardiologist told me they will teach me how to give myself Heprin shots to replace Coumadin a few days ahead of time. This will be another new experience.
    Good luck with your surgery.
    John

  • alice R.

    Hi John O’neil: Last mesage I see i s July 4th. So what is new. I am going to Cleveland Clinic for surgery before end of year for aortic stenosis(narrowing of aorta). Is thsi similar to yours? Cleveland seems to favor bovine or pig valves so far. what we read so far is that mechanical used mostly in younger patients. Let us all know your updates. You are in my prayers. Your running is amazing, even for a non-heart operation person! ALICE

  • John O’Neill

    Hi Everyone!
    It is hard to believe that my surgery was over seven months ago. I just returned from Mayo Clinic and my six month check up. I scheduled this the first week of December because I knew we are always done with farm field work by then… Wrong! After the wettest fall we have ever had, we are just finishing fall tillage now. I think the lessons I learned about patience this year came in handy. It also helped that we were harvesting the best crops we have ever had. My family and I have been truly blessed many times this year.
    As we drove by Saint Marys Hospital and The Mayo Clinic last Sunday on our way to the hotel, my wife asked me if I had any scarey feelings or flash backs from last spring. I told her no, that I was feeling an emotional warmth and almost homecoming at the time as I thought of all of the doctors and staff that took such good care of me.
    My checkup went extremely well. I also had the colonoscopy done. Because of my family history and low INR they left me on coumadin and did a screening. There were no polyps, but there was an area of inflamation which they biopsied and feel was caused by the baby Aspirin, so they have taken me off of that. At the end of the checkup, Dr. Gura told me that if insurance companies only had to insure people in my present condition, they would all be making lots of money. He also said I can begin to participate in races. I don’t think he wants me to set any speed records, though. He also cautioned me on how hard to push it and what to look out for, especially if I decide to run Grammas Marathon next spring in Duluth.
    In September, my insurance company provided me with my own INR testing machine. This is a great help and saves me a lot of time and money getting tested every week. An INR reading of 2.5-3.5 continues to be elusive, though. I am hoping this winter that my diet and exercise will be more consistant in keeping it in the range. This past fall with long hours and quick meals and lunches, I had no consistancy at all.
    Cuts, scrapes, and bruises were not any different than before coumadin, but a couple bumps to the shins ended up with much pain, swelling, and severe bruising. I don’t understand this when the same day I accidentally hit my hand full-force with a hammer, scraping off a square inch of skin and didn’t even get a bruise! I think I will have to look for a set of shin guards for next year!
    Adam, thanks again for your web site and all of the education it provides.
    Merry Christmas to all!
    John O’Neill

  • John O’Neill

    Hi everyone
    Just a quick update. I had another colonscopy June 1 and the ulcer was completely healed up. Eliminating the baby asprin took care of it. This time I had to go off Coumadin and give myself Lovenox shots before and right after the procedure. It wasn’t that big of a deal.
    I also ran Grammas Marathon in Duluth Minnesota on June 19. After properly training and following my cardiologists suggestions I ran a great race. I completed the 26.2 miles in four hours,fifteen minutes and forty eight seconds. It was my first marathon and a great experience with a lot of Minnesota nice. I am already looking forward to the next one. As I look back on my heart surgery it was a pretty big bump in the road but life goes on and back to normal after all.
    Take Care,
    John O’Neill

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