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Health Team

For 100th time, UNC uses less invasive procedure to replace aortic valve

Posted February 10

Bill Sunas has lived a full life.

He is a World War II and Korean War veteran, and he spent time in the 1940s on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill boxing team.

Recently, the 91-year-old thought his life was coming to a quick end.

"I couldn't walk like I used to walk," he said. "I could walk 20 yards without getting absolutely breathless."

Sunas was diagnosed with aortic valve stenosis, where the main valve to the heart is calcified and failing to pump enough blood out of the heart and to the body.

Sunas thought open-heart surgery was the only option.

"I already had a bypass in 2000, and I had deplored the idea of being cut open again," he said.

Three years ago, UNC Hospitals began offering a new option for patients at risk from open-heart surgery.

It's called TAVR, or transcatheter aortic valve replacement.

"This technology has really been a life-saving technology for so many patients, because now it opens up an opportunity for aortic valve replacement without open-heart surgery," UNC Hospitals cardiologist Dr. John Vavalle said.

Vavalle says two different types of prosthetic valves are on the market, and both are collapsed on the tip of a catheter wire to be installed. The valves make their way to the heart through an artery near the groin.

"The new transcatheter valve literally pushes aside the old valve," Vavalle said.

The procedure can be done under "conscious sedation," which allows a quicker recovery time.

Sunas enjoyed cake after having his TAVR procedure. He was UNC's 100th patient to receive the prosthetic valve.

"This minimally invasive allowed him to walk around the unit within hours after the procedure," Vavalle said.

Sunas went home 48 hours after his procedure.

Because the technology is so new, doctors still aren't quite sure how long it will continue to function in the heart. For that reason, TAVR generally isn't offered to younger patients. In those cases, standard open-heart surgery is still the first option.

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