What do Arnold Schwarzenegger and 21-year-old Personal Training Director Arik Bibicoff have in common? They both say Keck Medicine of USC and Vaughn Starnes, MD, saved their lives.
Valencia resident Arik Bibicoff was first motivated to go down the path of bodybuilding in 2012, after seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s weight lifting video, “Pumping Iron.” His interest quickly became his passion, and the gym became Arik’s second home.
Arik would work out six days a week with his friends. He loved it so much that he became a personal training director at a leading national fitness center within six months, making him one of the youngest directors at the company. For the next six months, he continued to excel in this position, within his district and beyond.
“I elevated my financial situation, moved up quickly at my company, and after working hard for it, obtained the physique I had always wanted,” Arik says.
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In June of 2015, Arik started having serious symptoms, which caused him to cut his workouts short. These included fatigue, nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite, numbness of the extremities, shortness of breath and chest pressure.
“I went from the height of my young existence to the most limited and difficult part of my life in a very short period of time,” Arik says.
After many visits to doctors, he discovered that he was born with a heart defect called a bicuspid valve. This condition can cause the valve to leak. In some cases, surgical intervention is not needed. In others, it is not needed until later in life. But for Arik, the leaking valve was taking a toll on his health, causing his heart to enlarge.
His condition progressed at an early age, likely because of his bodybuilding. He was told to immediately back off of one thing that he truly loved: weight lifting.
“Some of the other doctors I met with had predominantly older and less active patients. They delivered messages of doom and gloom, including extremely restricted post-surgery weight lifting and physical activity, and strong medications, such as blood thinners for the rest of my life,” he said. “They also warned that I needed to have my surgery within a couple of months to replace my faulty valve with a mechanical valve.”
Scared and unsure of what to do, Arik and his parents realized they needed to look for another option.
As Arik’s livelihood looked grim, his family went above and beyond to find a solution.
“Several family members became my advocates: researching all hours of the night, talking to everyone they knew and spending countless hours on the phone with my insurance company,” he says. “They found Keck Medicine of USC and Dr. Vaughn Starnes.”
“Through persistence and help from family and friends, I was referred for a consultation with Dr. Starnes and was fortunate enough to become his patient. He was confident that because I was young and strong, I was a great fit for the Ross procedure, which was his specialty,” he says. “Even though the thought of open heart surgery was extremely daunting, just knowing I would be cared for by the best took a huge weight off my family’s shoulders.”
The Ross procedure is a cardiac surgery operation, wherein a diseased aortic valve is replaced with the person’s own pulmonary valve. Dr. Starnes has successfully performed more than 400 Ross procedures, which are best suited for younger patients with the intent of giving them their active lifestyle back, post-surgery and with very little medication.
After some research, Arik discovered that his hero also had the same procedure with Dr. Starnes.
“It was fate, when I learned that my motivator Arnold Schwarzenegger was also born with a bicuspid valve and had undergone the Ross procedure in 1997 with Dr. Starnes,” he says. “Not only did Arnold have the same procedure, but it was with the same surgeon at the same hospital.”
On September 30, 2015, Dr. Starnes performed the double valve replacement Ross procedure on Arik. Analysis of Arik’s old valve showed extreme deterioration — his tissue was unusually thin. The timing of meeting Dr. Starnes couldn’t have been better. The surgery was a success, and Arik began his road to recovery with a healthy new valve.
“Dr. Starnes, his colleagues and everyone at Keck Medicine certainly lived up to their reputation,” Arik says. “The entire team was there to support me and my family both medically and emotionally through this life-changing experience. Everyone was patient, kind and caring.”
Arik is recovered and back to doing the thing that he loves.
“I have surpassed my one-year anniversary of the surgery, and I feel great. I am so relieved that all of the symptoms I experienced before the surgery have vanished. I am even able to pursue my passion of weight lifting, but I do it responsibly,” he says. “Dr. Starnes saved my life, and my family and I will be forever grateful.”