When you’re told that you need surgery, there’s a lot to think about: How to take the time you will need to recover, who your support system will be, and what you need to do to prepare. But most people don’t think about shopping around for a surgeon, or even realize that they can.
Alex Good was born with a bicuspid aortic valve. Most people have aortic valves that are tricuspid – the valves have three leaflets that regulate the movement of blood through the heart and make sure it doesn’t flow backwards. Good’s valve had only two leaflets. Bicuspid aortic valves aren’t an immediate health risk, but they can collect calcium deposits, causing them to stiffen and narrow over time.
Good’s condition didn’t keep him from living a full life – he was always physically active, worked in the Ronald Reagan administration, and went on to become the CEO of a number of successful companies – but it could affect his stamina for intense cardio activities, and it was something he always kept an eye on.
When he went in for a check-up echocardiogram in June of 2018, Good didn’t like the numbers he saw.
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“The results were pretty bad,” he said. “I knew I needed to do something quickly.” So he and his partner, Darrylynn Kaun, started researching.
Learning about valve replacement procedures was a team effort: Both Good and Kaun read books and scoured the Internet, but when Good felt like he was getting overwhelmed with information, Kaun would read ahead.
“We recommend a tag team approach,” said Kaun, “I would read all the details and tell Alex. It allowed me to be supportive and helpful, and he could find out the information he needed.”
“She would read a lot of information and I could meter out how much I could take,” said Good. “I remember one night, we were having dinner and I said ‘OK, that’s enough!’ It worked out well for me and I could not have done it without her.”
But they didn’t stop there. Good also started checking reviews and ratings for surgeons all over California. That’s when he knew he wanted Vaughn Starnes, MD, Distinguished Professor and chairman of the Department of Surgery at Keck Medicine of USC.
“Dr. Starnes just came out time and time again with an exceptional reputation. What impressed me the most was a website that asked doctors: If you had a loved one who needed this procedure, who would you recommend? His recommendation rate was twice as high as anybody else’s. I became convinced I needed to talk to Dr. Starnes.”
Their initial meeting was one of mutual respect.
“I got a sense that Alex had been shopping,” Starnes recalled. When asked if he minded patients looking around, he gave a firm no. “It’s important to feel comfortable asking questions and looking for the doctor who is right for you. I hope my patients will have done some research, so I’m very open with them.”
“Dr. Starnes is a man of few words,” said Good. “He had seen my angiogram and echocardiogram and my CT scan, and he knew. He said ‘Alex, you have a bad valve,’ and we went from there. And talking to him – he has such confidence. I knew he was the man.”
“I don’t ever try to sell a patient,” explained Starnes. “I tell them what they need, the potential complications, and how long they might be in the hospital. And then I let them make up their own minds.”
“I put my total confidence in him,” said Good, “And here we are.”
The surgery went exceptionally well. Good was walking within twelve hours of getting out of the operating room and climbing stairs within a day. Good and Kaun were also very happy with their entire experience at Keck Medicine.
“I think the thing that impressed me is that across the board, from the receptionists all the way to Dr. Starnes, is how kind and professional people have been. That makes going through something no one wants to go through very much easier. It’s been a terrific experience. I wouldn’t choose to go through it, but I feel very fortunate that it happened here.”
Good is doing well now, and enjoys taking long hikes and bike rides with Kaun. He stands by the advice he has for anyone contemplating surgery:
“Do your homework. Then you’ll have the confidence to give your surgeon the authority to do what he or she needs to do.”
By Ali Davis