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Debating Heart Valve Choices

Posted Dec 09 2010 8:58am

My husband found out that one of his valves is malformed. Along with correcting the aortic aneurysm, he will have a valve replaced. In addition with all the other issues, we are not debating heart valve choices.

He was given the choice of either a mechanical or natural valve made from pig or cow tissue. The mechanical valve lasts forever, with a slight risk of malfunction. His surgeon showed us a valve. It looked like plastic flaps forming the three leaves of the valve. When you move it, it makes a clicking sound.

Ever the curious one, my husband asked if it is audible. The doctor assured him that he would tune out the sound after awhile. The natural valve looked like skin. There was nothing odd looking. The differences between the two are where we begin debating heart valve choices.

The mechanical valve has longevity on its side. It is often used for younger people because it will last. The natural valve has a lifespan of about 10 to 15 years. After it gradually wears out, it will be time for a replacement—and surgery—again.

The major downside of the mechanical valve is that you have to be one a blood thinner for your entire life. The only choice currently approved for valve replacements is warfarin. This is a particularly difficult drug. One the one hand, it ensures that your blood will flow smoothly and not form clots around the valve.

On the other hand, its effectiveness is closely tied with your vitamin K intake. Vitamin K is essential for producing clotting factors in your liver. Too much at one time while on warfarin can lead to bleeding. Too little can result in brain aneurysms. You choose your fate.

To avoid either scenario, you have to take frequent blood tests to monitor your clotting time. You have to carefully screen everything you eat and any medication or OTC dietary supplement you take. You also have to watch your vitamin E intake because of its effects on vitamin K.

Things which can affect your dosage include foods and beverages such as liver and green, leafy vegetables. Green tea can possibly affect it as can omega 3 fatty acids, fish oil, ginkgo biloba and a host of other things.

Given the risks, we chose the natural valve. Rejection is non-existent so that’s not an issue. The week we found out about my husband’s condition, there were three major cardiovascular health developments including two possible replacements for warfarin. We decided to place our trust in science.

It is such an odd place to be, debating heart valve choices in terms of your spouse’s life expectancy. I only hope that the lessons we have learned may help others who find themselves in this odd place.

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