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A Heart for Diving

Phil’s Aortic Valve Replacement

Phil had one question during his heart surgery consultation: Would he be able to scuba dive afterward? His cardiovascular surgeon, Patrick M. McCarthy, MD, could only laugh.

Three years prior, Phil had to give up scuba diving because of an obstruction that would ultimately require a valve replacement and aneurysm repair. An unprecedented lack of energy and stamina meant he no longer felt safe diving. When it came time to get treatment, he chose to travel from Florida to Chicago to see Dr. McCarthy and Robert Silverberg, MD. A combination of personal reasons and Dr. McCarthy’s track record led Phil to choose Northwestern Memorial Hospital. It was a decision the 60-year-old emergency room doctor would not regret.

“They treated me so well. I think they did everything perfectly,” Phil says. “I’m a physician. I know the way it should be, and Northwestern Memorial Hospital really has it together. They do it right every step of the way.”

At his consultation in January - the same at which he asked about scuba diving - Phil showed his understanding of what was going on, the potential risk and what would come next. He knew what his condition would require, and the group scheduled surgery for March.

Phil was born with bicuspid aortic valve, which is the most common congenital heart defect. He would require a Bentall procedure to repair the aneurysm and replace the valve. While a rare procedure for some hospitals, Dr. McCarthy and the Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute team perform valve replacements regularly. Three days after the procedure, Phil was discharged from the hospital. Two weeks later, he was back in Florida. And just five months after his heart surgery, Phil was back in the water, just in time for lobster season.

“Scuba diving has been a huge part of my life since I was 10 years old,” Phil says. “I grew up in Indiana, but I’ve lived in Florida, I’ve lived in the Caribbean, and my favorite thing to do in life was scuba diving. It’s beautiful.”

“I’m telling you, these people saved my life,” Phil continued. “They’ve made it to where I’m enjoying every day again.”

The Northwestern Medicine team was able to do so in large part because of the Martha and Richard Melman Family Bicuspid Aortic Valve Program. The first of its kind, the program combines clinical care with research, pairing cardiologists and cardiac surgeons with scientists to ensure the most appropriate treatment. The research part of the program publishes papers on topics ranging from surgical outcomes and 4D MRI technology to patient care and the science behind specific mechanisms, including understanding why some patients, like Phil, develop aneurysms and others do not.