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Barbara Walters’ words on her heart surgery – and a warning for women

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It was quite a surprise when Barbara Walters announced on The View that she would be having heart surgery this week to replace her aortic valve. At 80, she is still one of the busiest, most visible news personalities on the air.

"You know how I always say to you how healthy I am. ... I've never missed a day's work," Walters said. "Later this week, I'm going to have surgery to replace one faulty heart valve. Lots of people have done this, and I have known about this condition for a while now."

Walters was calm and optimistic about the procedure. But it is major, open-heart surgery and requires a long recovery time. Part of the reason her surgery is scheduled now is to allow her to recover over the summer and return to work in the fall.

From ABC News:

“Walters told ABC Senior Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser that the problem was detected during an echocardiogram of her heart -- a scan that revealed that her valves were "getting tighter and smaller." Since this test, her doctors have been following the progression of the problem, anticipating that her aortic valve would eventually need to be replaced. Recently, Walters said, she has experienced some pressure in her upper chest.

“The aortic valve is, in effect, the exit door of the heart. It is through this gateway that the blood is pumped to the rest of the body. With time, the valve can harden and become less effective at keeping blood from flowing in reverse. This hardening is known as stenosis. It can worsen to the point that it can severely affect health -- and, if untreated, it can lead to early death.

“For this reason, surgery is often necessary to correct the problem before it progresses.

“According to the American Heart Association, surgeons in the United States performed 17,592 aortic valve procedures in 2007. On average, these patients spent only eight days in the hospital after their surgeries. The risk of complications associated with this procedure, including death, is less than 5 percent, doctors say.”

Although Walters has known about her condition for some time, she told her co-hosts on The View that she hadn’t noticed a difference in how she felt.

From CNN News:

While it might seem strange that someone could have a malfunctioning heart valve and feel just fine, cardiologists say that's often the case.

"It's the type of thing you could have for a while and not even know it," said Dr. Sara Mobasseri, medical director of Women's Heart Services at the Piedmont Heart Institute in Atlanta, Georgia.

"Most of the time people come in with no symptoms or very subtle symptoms," said Dr. Kenneth Rosenfield, an interventional cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"By the time they start having serious symptoms, it can be pretty far advanced."
More than 5 million Americans have heart valve disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. Here is what it says about symptoms:

“Aortic valve stenosis ranges from mild to severe. Aortic valve stenosis symptoms typically develop when narrowing of the valve is severe and can include:

• Chest pain (angina) or tightness
• Feeling faint or fainting with exertion
• Shortness of breath, especially with exertion
• Fatigue, especially during times of increased activity
• Heart palpitations — sensations of a rapid, fluttering heartbeat
• Heart murmur

“The heart-weakening effects of aortic valve stenosis may lead to heart failure. Heart failure symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, and swollen ankles and feet.

“Aortic valve stenosis may not produce warning signs right away, making it difficult to detect at first. The condition is often discovered during a routine physical when a doctor hears an abnormal heart sound (heart murmur). This murmur may occur long before other signs and symptoms develop. “
Walters encourages women to be watchful.

"Many women don't go to a doctor and have their heart checked. Men tend to do it before because we think it's a man's thing, but it's a woman's thing, too," she said on The View.

"Women often minimize their symptoms. It's just part of their [modus operandi]," said Mobasseri. "They tend to send their husbands in to see the doctor but put themselves last."

The ABC News story:

The CNN News story:

The Mayo Clinic page on aortic valve stenosis:

We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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