About six weeks ago my father’s last column was published. In it, he shared that he would be on hiatus while undergoing medical treatment.
He was hoping to have been discharged from local cardiac rehab and was planning to resume his column this week. I want to share what happened between then and now.
My father was 88 years old. A year ago he began experiencing significant edema or swelling in his lower left leg. Visits with his local cardiologist confirmed a heart problem.
Last July, several family members and I took him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for a more thorough evaluation. There, he was diagnosed with aortic stenosis, a narrowing in the left aortic valve of his heart caused by calcification. The diameter of a healthy valve is about the size of a quarter. His had narrowed to the diameter of a pencil. The remedy involved replacing his aortic valve. It could be done one of two ways — open heart surgery or a new procedure called transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR).
The surgeon told him that for a person his age with that condition, odds were 50-50 that he would be dead with-in 18 to 24 months if he did nothing.
Open heart surgery presented significant risks for a person of his age and condition. TAVR, on the other hand, was still in clinical trials, and my father was not frail enough to be eligible.
With an open heart procedure as the only option avail-able, my father chose to look at the glass as half-full. He also hoped that he might become eligible for the TAVR at a later time or it might soon be approved for use in the general population. Nonetheless, he left Mayo last summer in a steadily declining state of health.
After the first of this year, TAVR was approved and was a more broadly though still not universally available option. Meanwhile, my father’s decline was accelerating. His breathing was short and shallow, and walking even the shortest distance, he said, left his legs feeling like jelly.
We returned to Mayo for an evaluation in the spring. This time he was eligible. He knew the TAVR had risks, but he was quickly running out of options.
He had surgery on May 5. Immediately he could breathe normally, sleep restfully and his color returned. The edema disappeared.
He spent 12 days in recovery at Mayo and was released to return for more recovery locally. In Topeka, he was in recovery for eight days when his health took a sudden turn. Because of his health before the surgery, systems other than his heart had been subjected to considerable stress for a period of time. To keep everything working was a very delicate balance. His valve replacement had made his heart better, along with many other systems, but regrettably it could not restore them all.
We said to each other that once his heart was working better, we could focus on the next infirmity of his old age. The rapid decline before his surgery was behind him, but he knew continuing decline was inevitable, though hopefully at a slower pace. Instead, he was gone in a near instant. Despite his physical limitations, he and we were fortunate that his keen intellect was present until the end.
My father perhaps never imagined his early submissions as a columnist would turn into such a longstanding weekly exercise. But as with so many things that marked his life, once he undertook this effort, he did so with the fervor and curiosity that underpinned everything he did. In particular, he appreciated hearing from readers.
Our family thanks this newspaper and its readers for giving him the opportunity to share his thoughts, ideas and experiences.
He found it to be usually a pleasure and sometimes a challenge, but never to be work.