93 and Still Going Strong

For most of the 35 years since her retirement as a layout and graphic design artist, Eula-Lee Geisert, 93, has kept physically active. A Sierra Club leader, she regularly hiked in the San Gabriel Mountains and visited the gym five days a week.

But early in 2013, she found herself short of breath, unable to do much more than walk from room to room in her home. Her cardiologist diagnosed her with aortic valve stenosis (a narrowed aortic heart valve) and sent her to Keck Medicine of USC’s CardioVascular Thoracic Institute (CVTI) for help.

CVTI’s experienced surgeons and other specialists determined that Geisert’s age made the traditional approach to valve replacement through open-heart surgery — which includes stopping the heart and using a heart-lung bypass machine — too risky because of potential complications. Instead, they recommended a less invasive therapy called transferal transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR).

Beating Heart Surgery

“This procedure allows us to replace the malfunctioning heart valve by making a puncture in the leg, inserting the new valve, moving it into place with a guide wire and inflating it inside the damaged valve — all without stopping the heart,” said interventional cardiologist Ray Matthews, MD, one of Geisert’s two physicians. “We also use a specialized operating room so we can do high-level digital imaging for accuracy.” Matthews is head of the TAVR team and trains other surgeons in TAVR procedures.

People who have typical open-heart surgery stay in the hospital for 10 days to two weeks and often must transfer to a skilled-care facility. Full recovery takes about three months if there are no complications. In contrast, most TAVR patients are hospitalized for only five or six days before going directly home, said Matthews.

Total, Rapid Recovery

“Everyone on the team was so nice, and helped explain things,” Geisert said. “I had excellent treatment and wonderful results, and never suffered any pain. When I went home, it was like a miracle — I felt like my old self again.”

Her TAVR medical team, one of the most experienced in Southern California, included Vaughn Starnes, MD, chair of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, who specializes in the surgical replacement of valves and co-directs the CVTI with Matthews, a specialist in using guide wires
and catheters; Alison Wilcox, a radiologist trained in reading scans for TAVR procedures; and Mary Schoenbaum, a nurse practitioner who coordinates patient procedures, medications and treatment plans.

Both Geisert’s medical care providers and fellow active seniors admire Geisert’s resilience.

“They want to know my secret — I’m the oldest one in my gym class, and they think I’m outstanding because I do all the exercises, and I never sit down,” she said. “I tell them it’s a combination of the physical abilities you inherit, the self-discipline to eat right and exercise, and the power of positive thinking.”

By Robin Heffler

Learn more about the USC CardioVascular Thoracic Institute