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New Procedure Replaces Heart Valve Without Surgery

A team of doctors in New York is leading a clinical trial, replacing heart valves in cardiac patients but without open heart surgery. Several hundred people in the United States have had the procedure and doctors will follow up with them to see how their new valves are working. The doctors hope the procedure will eventually replace traditional heart surgery.

Several months ago, Sister Thomas Duggan could not walk more than a few steps without losing her breath.

"I got heart failure," she said. "And that's what caused me to be exhausted and not able to sleep."

Doctors diagnosed her with aortic stenosis - a condition that caused her heart valve to narrow.

"When the valve doesn't open normally, pressure builds up in the heart, patients get short of breath because the pressures in the lungs are now elevated and they accumulate fluid in the lungs but they can also develop chest pain, lightheadedness and fainting as well," explained Dr. Martin Leon, who is with New York's Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.

Sister Thomas needed a new heart valve. But at 91 years old, she was unlikely to survive open heart surgery. So she volunteered for a clinical trial at Columbia Presbyterian to replace her valve with a less invasive procedure.

"The procedure is much like the traditional catheterization process with people who have a blocked artery," Dr. Leon said.

A replacement valve was threaded up through an artery to the heart valve, where it expanded into place.

"It was a very successful procedure," Dr. Leon said. "We were delighted with the outcome."

Now, Sister Thomas has resumed her normal routines.

"I feel really good," she said. "Really. I almost forgot how it was before."

Her nieces say the procedure saved her life.

Doctors are limiting the trial to people who cannot have open-heart surgery. They hope that eventually, more than 100,000 cardiac patients in the country can have the procedure instead of traditional surgery.