man playing guitar with granddaughter

MitraClip corrects lifelong heart problem for 72-year-old patient

December 18, 2019 | Tonya Becerra
mitraclip patient carol sparks
Carol Sparks, 72, was born with mitral regurgitation, a heart condition that allows blood to flow back into the heart because the mitral valve does not close properly.

Carol Sparks didn’t expect to be the first MitraClip patient at UCI Health. She just wanted the intense pain from gallstones to go away.

“I was in terrible agony,” she says. “But I couldn’t have surgery to remove the gallstones because of my heart.”

Sparks was born with mitral regurgitation, a heart condition that allows blood to flow back into the heart because the mitral valve does not close properly.

Living with mitral regurgitation

If untreated, mitral regurgitation can cause shortness of breath, weakness and, eventually, heart failure. It’s something she’s lived with her whole life: “I’ve had almost every heart test around.”

About 11 years ago, it led to congestive heart failure. She was hospitalized and treated with medication at UCI Health. “I went home and things went back to normal.”

Normal for Sparks meant trimming trees and mowing the lawn at her Garden Grove home, and lifting a 3-gallon water bottle with one hand – even at age 72. Normal also meant constant shortness of breath and fatigue. Because she also suffered from severe asthma, Sparks was accustomed to it.

But nearly all her activities ground to a halt as her condition began to decline.

Treatment for breast cancer

During tests to treat the gallbladder condition, UCI Health doctors discovered that Sparks also had breast cancer.

Medical oncologist Dr. Rita Mehta, surgical oncologist Dr. Kari Kansal and radiation oncologist Dr. Nilam Ramsinghani treated her.

“My doctors were amazing. It was in the early stages and they were able to remove it,” says Sparks. “I had a few radiation treatments. I take medication and go for infusions once every six months. I wasn’t very worried about that.”

Ultimately, she even had the gallstones successfully removed.

Deteriorating valve function

During these treatments, however, tests revealed that Sparks’ mitral regurgitation had worsened significantly.

“I could hear the loud swooshing on the ultrasound machine,” Sparks remembers. “It definitely did not sound good. They also showed me the red and blue blood flow. Even though I’m not a doctor, I could see way too much red.”

Still, the recommendation that she undergo open-heart surgery to fix the mitral valve concerned Sparks. “The procedure, the recovery time, it all sounded scary,” she recalls.

“My wife, Deana, was also worried. It’s been stressful on her as well. She’s been my caretaker through all of this.”

MitraClip an alternative to open-heart surgery

Then Sparks’ cardiologist, Dr. Dawn Lombardo, suggested she might be a good candidate for a new procedure, in which the device called MitraClip is used to tighten the leaky mitral valve.

The clip is placed using a non-surgical procedure called transcatheter mitral valve repair (TMVr). The device is inserted through the groin into the heart and positioned across the mitral valve.

The cardiologist then tightens the mitral valve with the clip to block blood from flowing backwards or regurgitating.

“I didn’t mind being the first patient to get the procedure here,” says Sparks. “I have so much confidence in the doctors at UCI Health. I’ve been coming here since 1991. I wasn’t worried. I knew they were going to do it right.”

'I've been thrilled with the results'

Interventional cardiologist Dr. Ailin Barseghian El-Farra, who performed the procedure, explains that surgery isn’t an option for all patients. “The MitraClip is great for people who don’t have other options.”

Almost immediately after her MitraClip procedure on Sept. 4, Sparks felt better.

“I’ve been thrilled with the results!” she exclaims. “I felt no pain at all. When I woke up, I was resting. A day later, I was home.”

Barseghian says, “It’s very gratifying to offer a treatment that can relieve symptoms. The recovery time is shortened, and patients often feel immediate relief.”

The improvement in her health has been dramatic for Sparks.

Regaining her stamina

“It used to take 10 to 15 minutes for me to catch my breath,” she says. “Now that happens much less frequently. And when it does, the recovery time might take a minute or two.”

“A year ago, I couldn’t have been on the treadmill for 30 seconds,” she adds.

Today, Sparks logs 40 minutes on a treadmill and another 15 minutes on a stationary bike at the UCI Health Cardiac Rehabilitation Clinic three times a week as part of her recovery plan.

She is grateful for the improvement to her stamina and overall health. “I feel like I have a new heart, like I have another 72 years ahead of me.”

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