BOISE -- We're in an age of technology where medical innovations are constantly being introduced. One of the latest innovations targets heart disease, the number one killer of Americans.
A new FDA approved surgery performed at St. Luke's Regional Medical Center is adding years to the lives of patients who no longer qualify for open heart surgery.
This surgery replaces someone's aortic valve without opening up the chest. Heart surgeons like Dr. Oz say this new surgery is one of the biggest breakthroughs to come to the field in a long time.
"It's like I never had anything done," said Elaine Conway one week after her surgery.
Conway is the third person in Idaho to take advantage of a new procedure called Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR).
Back in the 1970s, Conway had clogged arteries which led to two open heart surgeries, one in 1977 the other in 1989. Then in 2005 she found out she needed a new valve in her aorta.
"I couldn't walk half a block,” said Conway. “I'd be getting chest pains, pains up and down my left arm.”
The problem though, she didn't qualify for a third open heart surgery.
"At the point I was at before this procedure, I had probably at the utmost, three-and-a-half years to live," said Conway.
The FDA approved TAVR in November after four to five years of research and two more years of testing. Right now there are 150 hospitals in the country that are able to perform this surgery.
"We're one of the first centers in the Northwest, and the only center in Idaho to do this procedure," said Dr. Robert Duerr, a cardiologist at St. Luke's Regional Medical Center.
Duerr has helped perform each of the three surgeries, including Conway’s. He explains how it works.
"Instead of cutting through someone's sternum, we can place a small tube in their leg, in their femoral artery, run that up through their aorta, put in a new valve without having to do formal surgery," said Duerr.
Duerr says patients who previously did not qualify for valve replacement surgery because of sickness, age or frailty, now can, in the majority of cases, receive TAVR.
"In terms of innovation, this is the biggest thing that's happened in interventional cardiology in 15 years," said Duerr.
And that's welcomed news for Conway who says she has had more heart attacks than she can count.
"There's a lot to smile about," said Conway as she sat in a patient room for her one week post-surgery appointment.
The new valve is expected to last 10 to 12 years. Conway, who celebrated her 78 birthday while in the hospital, says excited for the extra time.
"This is my life,” said Conway. “Either I have it or I don't and now I do, so I have a lot left to do.”
Dr. Duerr says Conway has no limitations. With that good news she plans to see her great-grandson who lives in eastern Montana for the first time. Before the surgery, Conway couldn’t travel too far because her body couldn’t handle it.
Dr. Duerr was quick to point out that open heart surgery is still the gold standard when it comes to replacing heart valves. But TAVR, he says, is the wave of the future and really the only option for many who need a new heart valve.