Not everyone gets to meet somebody who has handcrafted a piece of their heart.
But that’s what happened in March when dozens of heart valve recipients journeyed to Edwards Lifesciences Inc., in Irvine, Calif., where they met the people responsible for the valves that keep their blood flowing.
“We brought them there to connect with one another and to meet the dedicated team of employees who handsew every heart valve, stitch by careful stitch,” says Michael Mussallem, Edwards’ chief executive. “Needless to say, it was a very emotional day.”
More than 100 patients and caregivers came to Edwards’ first Patients Day —timed in conjunction with the ACC conference — to tour the manufacturing plant, hear from Mussallem and other executives, talk with patient advocates about how to make their voices heard, and meet the workers who created their specific valves, matched by serial numbers.
The most impressive stories came from the visitors themselves. A Marine Corps veteran from Michigan, who had received an Edwards valve just two months earlier, proudly noted how he was on his feet 48 hours after the transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) procedure, which uses an expandable catheter to insert an artificial valve through an artery into the beating heart.
A Colorado teacher spoke of how she survived Hodgkins lymphoma only to find that her aortic valve needed replacement. With her chest weakened from radiation, the doctors ruled out open-heart surgery and instead inserted an Edwards valve using the TAVR procedure. It wasn’t long before she could once again brave a classroom full of middle-schoolers.
Long-distance runner Tom Price told how he had run seven marathons before a faulty aortic valve left him so weak he could barely run a mile. In January 2007, he went to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y., to get a new valve from Edwards. Within eight weeks he was running again, joined by other heart patients he met through his website “Cardiac Athletes.” In November 2008, he ran his eighth marathon.
Price says that as a member of Mended Hearts, he often returns to St. Joseph’s to visit other patients and give them “a spark of encouragement on their road to recovery.”
“Patients like these remind us of the importance of our daily work, and the chance to bring our ideas out of the lab, into the clinic and to the patients and physicians that need them most,” Mussallem says. “Each heart valve represents a patient and their family, who otherwise would miss out on both the extraordinary and precious ordinary experiences of their daily lives.”