APPLETON, Wis. – Donna Kirk blamed her increasing fatigue and shortness of breath on her age and some asthma issues. The 77-year-old who lives outside of Berlin, Wis., just assumed, “That’s how life is at my age.”
“We want to empower our patients and community to look beyond accepting factors such as age for not living life to the fullest,” explained Kristopher Selke, DO, FACC, FSCAI, an interventional and structural cardiologist and Medical Director for the Structural Heart Disease Program with ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care. “Our team take time to listen to patients and leverage our knowledge to provide the best care recommendations. It’s incredibly important to learn about the patient as a person, understanding their needs, medical background, lifestyle and personal goals.”
After discussing her care plan with the Structural Heart Team at ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care, Kirk knew there were options to help her live better.
The recommendation from Dr. Selke and his team was to perform a Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR) procedure. TAVR is a minimally invasive procedure that repairs a person’s diseased aortic valve without removing the old damaged valve; rather, it wedges a replacement valve into the aortic valve’s place.
“The collapsible replacement valve is delivered via a catheter, similar to the placement of a stent,” explained Dr. Selke. “The procedure is less invasive than open-heart surgery and allows patients to go home sooner for recovery.”
In March 2021, Kirk became the 300th person to undergo a TAVR procedure at ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Appleton. ThedaCare began performing TAVRs in 2015. Prior to TAVR, the only way to replace a heart valve was through open-heart surgery.
Kirk is now breathing better, no longer has pain in her chest and shoulders or acid reflux symptoms.
“I was living with my head in the sand,” she recalled. “I hope my story will help others avoid the pain and problems I was experiencing, and take action to live better.”
Dr. Selke explained the TAVR procedure often benefits patients with heart disease who experience shortness of breath, chronic exertional fatigue, and require multiple trips to the emergency department.
“The heart is a big system of pipes and pumps,” he said. “What happens with aortic valve stenosis is the valve develops calcium buildup over time that causes narrowing and hardening. It’s like a pipe outside your house that becomes clogged with a buildup of calcification slowing the flow of water through it. The same thing can happen in our hearts. If we live long enough, some people will get that calcification build up and develop aortic valve stenosis. We sometimes refer to aortic valve stenosis as a ‘rite of passage’ for living a long life.”
Donna Kirk’s Journey to Better Health
Kirk’s journey to TAVR began last December after a routine doctor’s visit to renew her prescriptions. During that visit, Kirk’s primary care physician, Dr. Abigail Puglisi of ThedaCare Physicians-Berlin, noted her increased shortness of breath and a difference in the sound of a heart murmur that Kirk had developed about 20 years ago.
“I was so amazed she picked up on that because I hadn’t seen her in almost a year and half,” Kirk said. “I’m very grateful for that trip to the doctor.”
Since the pandemic began in March 2020, Kirk has been isolating at home, knowing her health conditions made her vulnerable to a serious case of COVID-19.
“Even though my breathing was getting worse, I was delaying a trip to the doctor,” she said. “When the scheduler called to say I should come in to be seen, I was hesitant. The care teams assured me that I would be safe, and I felt confident in the safety precautions.”
At the end of Kirk’s exam, Dr. Puglisi recommended an echocardiogram. Like many others across the country, Kirk was fearful of exposure to COVID-19. She hesitated to make the appointment.
“A couple of weeks went by,” she recalled. “Then Dr. Puglisi’s staff called and said she really wanted me to have the test. So I made the appointment at ThedaCare Medical Center-Berlin. I had the test on Monday. On Wednesday, Dr. Puglisi’s office let me know that ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care would be calling for a follow up appointment.”
Kirk met with the Structural Heart Team, including Dr. Selke and Dr. Salvior Mok, a Cardiothoracic Surgeon, who explained Kirk would likely be a good candidate for a TAVR procedure.
“I was relieved there was another option for me besides open-heart surgery,” said Kirk. “I was ready for relief – I was breathing so poorly I had to use a wheelchair because I couldn’t walk anywhere. I just could not breathe.”
“The ThedaCare Structural Heart Disease Review Board reviewed Kirk’s case to determine a TAVR was the best method of treatment for her condition,” said Dr. Nicholas Augelli, a Cardiothoracic Surgeon who conjointly performed Kirk’s TAVR with Dr. Selke. “It’s important that our team reviews cases to decide what treatment option is best for each person.”
With Heather Cavanaugh, RN, the Structural Heart Coordinator at ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care, guiding the process, Kirk was prepared for her procedure.
“Heather is kind of the ‘wedding planner’ who makes sure every patient’s case gets presented to the Structural Heart Disease Review Board,” said Dr. Selke. “It takes a lot of people to accomplish these heart procedures, and Heather coordinates all of the testing and appointments, and she manages the scheduling of the procedure with the appropriate interventional cardiologists and surgeons.”
After the TAVR, Kirk spent a just a few days in the hospital after the surgery.
“It’s been a few weeks, and I feel amazing,” she said. “This procedure has been life-changing.”
Now Kirk would like to offer advice to anyone experiencing health concerns.
“Don’t go through life just barely getting by, there is so much to live for,” she said. “Your health can deteriorate so slowly that you don’t realize you are feeling as bad as you are. Ask your doctor what’s going on and why you’re feeling that way, and then follow their advice and recommendations.”
Dr. Selke supported that advice, and offers more information about the Structural Heart Program at ThedaCare.
“The focus we maintain here at ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care is truly a multidisciplinary approach with interventional and structural cardiologists, cardiothoracic surgeons and other medical professionals working as a team to analyze a patient’s heart problems. We are not offering just one modality. When we do procedures such as TAVR, we do them conjointly, with each team member contributing to the procedure and adding their own specialty area.”
Dr. Augelli agreed the multidisciplinary approach works to the patient’s benefit as well as that of the cardiac team.
“Each one of us feels we are a part of the team and contributing to the patient’s good result, so the sum is better than one individual,” he said. “It makes each one of us feel valued as a contributing member of the team.”
As for Kirk, she is very thankful for the care team, and for the opportunity to have the TAVR procedure done close to home.
“Everyone I met at ThedaCare was amazing,” she said. “From the doctors and nurses to the environmental services team, every single person was wonderful. I am very fortunate for this positive experience to improve my health.”
For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health of the communities it serves in northeast and central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 18 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including seven hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their best lives through easy access to individualized care, supporting each person’s own health and wellbeing. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand unique needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.
For more information, visit thedacare.org or follow ThedaCare on social media. Members of the media should call Cassandra Wallace, Public and Media Relations Consultant at 920.442.0328 or the ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah switchboard at 920.729.3100 and ask for the marketing person on call.