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Barbara Walters opens up about her heart surgery

Barbara Walters has opened up about her recent heart surgery. The View co-host underwent open heart surgery to replace a faulty heart valve; the aortic valve, which pumps blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

In a lengthy piece for Vanity Fair, Walters talks about her initial disbelief that anything was seriously wrong to her pre-operative jitters.

“I will not show you my scar. But I will tell you that it goes from the middle of my breastbone to just below my breasts. It is barely noticeable. With makeup I can wear a plunging neckline, and if I were prone to wearing a bikini — which I am not — I could,” she writes.

“My operation was called open-heart surgery, which sounds very frightening. More than half a million open-heart surgeries are performed every year in this country, but the very description seems so terrifying that many people, afraid that they might have to undergo it, avoid even having an annual checkup. They are making a terrible mistake. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men, but what most people don’t know is that it is also the No. 1 killer of women. The thing is, with coronary heart disease, the symptoms are somewhat different for men than for women. Men usually experience pain in the chest and down the left arm. With women, it is more subtle—shortness of breath or nausea. It may therefore be helpful if I tell you about my experience, scar and all.

“My surgery was to replace my aortic valve, one of the four valves of the heart, which was getting increasingly narrow. That meant that blood was having a hard time getting out of the heart—not a good thing. If you happen to like scary films, here’s the ghoulish part. Your heart is located in the center of your chest, and the surgeon saws through your breastbone to reach it, using a sort of crowbar to spread the chest open. For a short period of time, he actually holds your heart in his hand, though it is still attached to your body. (My heart was stopped for 30 minutes, and for more than an hour I was on a heart-lung machine, which takes over the pumping action of your heart.) Then the doctor replaces the aortic valve with one from a pig or a cow. In my case, it came from a cow. (I was happy when I learned that. A pig valve wouldn’t be kosher.) Now the blood can flow easily again, and you are as good as new—maybe even better.

“Here’s the great news. You are not allowed to go to the dentist for at least three months after the surgery, because bacteria from your teeth can travel to your heart and cause an infection. No dentist. Also, no vigorous exercise for weeks. You experience great fatigue. No one raises an eyebrow if you take a nap every day. Finally, open-heart surgery sounds so awful that everyone worries about you, and what with the phone calls, the notes, and the flowers—all extolling your virtues and letting you know how wonderful you are — you feel as if you were reading your obituary. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, even though the operation is relatively routine, there is still a 1-to-2-percent chance that you won’t make it. Someone actually could wind up reading your obituary.

“I was diagnosed in October 2009 by a superb cardiologist named David Blumenthal. I didn’t go for a second opinion — I went for four. I just couldn’t believe that I needed this surgery. I had never missed a day of work because of ill health. Plus, I had heard of a much less invasive technique that was being tested experimentally but had not yet been approved by the F.D.A. Maybe if I just waited a year or so, until the technique was less experimental, it could be done on me. But all the doctors I saw agreed that I should probably have the surgery within a year. They determined this primarily with a test called an echocardiogram, which is different from the standard cardiogram doctors give you when you go for your annual checkup. (If you don’t go for an annual checkup, you are a dope.) The echocardiogram uses ultrasound beams, and you can actually watch it and hear your blood whooshing around. At that point, I didn’t know a valve from a kidney. Arteries, I sort of knew, were like veins, carrying blood from the heart. A clogged artery could require bypass surgery. Depending on how many clogged arteries you had, you might need a single, double, triple, or even quadruple bypass. My arteries were clear. It was my pesky aortic valve that was causing the concern. Strange, because I had none of the symptoms I have described.

“Permit me to digress. When the weather is mild, I often walk from the east side of Central Park across to the west side, where the studio for my television show is. I maintain a pretty good pace with two pals, Bryant Renfroe, my longtime hairstylist, and Lori Klein, my makeup artist. We always climb the flights of stairs at the Bethesda Fountain. In the spring of this year, a couple of times after this climb, I said to my pals, “Do you feel any pressure on your chest? Not out of breath, but pressure.” Each said “Nope.” The next time I talked to Dr. Blumenthal, I casually mentioned this pressure. “That is not good news,” he said. It was a sign that the valve was closing. Still, I felt no urgency, but I thought that perhaps I should visit the surgeon who would actually perform the operation. Dr. Craig Smith, the chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, is one of the most renowned doctors in the field. He had performed open-heart surgery on President Clinton and Mike Nichols. I talked to both of them, when we chanced to meet, and they swore by him. As it turned out, Dr. Blumenthal was not on the staff of Columbia Presbyterian, so I had to find a doctor who was. I was referred to another superb cardiologist, Dr. Jerry Gliklich. He also advised surgery, and soon. By then it was April. Strangely, I had no fear. It was as if all this were happening to someone else. Yet I re-did my will.”

Read the rest at the Vanity Fair website.

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