Her first cardiologist diagnosed her with a damaged mitral valve, but thought it was too minor to recommend surgery. A second cardiologist agreed that her cardiac regurgitation was getting worse, but thought her symptoms were still too mild to advise surgery. After all, she still had relatively good cardiac function.

But good wasn’t good enough for Dr. Beverly Gates. She knew that, as a competitive swimmer, her years of training should have given her an advantage in cardiac function. Not only was she having difficulty completing her daily mile and a half swim, she also found herself getting out of breath simply walking up the stairs in her own house.

“My symptoms were mild in my cardiologist’s estimation but not in mine,” she said. “I didn’t like being the slowest swimmer in my class and being out of breath.”

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After two years, when Gates’ condition continued to worsen despite the medication she was prescribed, her cardiologist decided it was time to do something. The next step was to find a cardiac surgeon with whom she felt comfortable.

Her search began and ended with a surgeon to whom she had referred several of her pediatric patients: Vaughn A. Starnes, MD, chair of the Department of Surgery at the Keck School of Medicine. Not only did her patients have excellent outcomes, but their parents were quite happy with the entire experience of working with Dr. Starnes and his team.

Along with the favorable reviews, Gates was impressed by the state-of-the-art treatment protocols she saw at Keck Medicine of USC. The close collaboration between cardiologists and cardiac surgeons allows the surgeon to focus on anatomy while the cardiologist evaluates cardiac function.

In addition to the multi-disciplinary approach, she appreciated the fact that Starnes’ team works together on cases and stays involved throughout the process. “I think the fact that they are so well-trained and that the same people care for you throughout your treatment makes a difference.”

After the evaluation, Starnes and his team decided that the best approach would be to repair her mitral valve rather than replace it. Repair usually provides faster recovery with fewer complications than replacement. Also, to minimize the amount of time Gates would need to spend on the cardiopulmonary bypass machine, Starnes performed the surgery using a modified set of instruments to reduce complications.

The surgery went smoothly. Rather than opening her entire chest, Starnes was able to perform the surgery through a minimal incision, and Gates recovered quickly. Able to resume work in six weeks, she was back at a full schedule in eight weeks. Just as important to her was that she could swim again after six weeks, as soon as her incision had completely healed.

Three months after the surgery, she can walk up her stairs without difficulty and is able to swim intensely again. She’s still not quite as fast as she would like in the pool, but admits that’s not due to her heart.

She’s thrilled with her results. “It came out exactly as I hoped it would. I wanted to get better and to be able to exercise intensely. I wanted the quality of life I used to have. My experience at Keck Medicine of USC helped me get that all back.”