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16th June 2016

How to mend a (real) broken heart

When a valve in Katja Jensen’s heart stopped working properly, doctors said surgery would be too risky. But doing nothing wasn’t an option, either.

Katja found out that her aortic valve had narrowed to one-third of its normal diameter after she started experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath and dizziness. The restriction of blood flow from her heart into her body was causing these symptoms, and something had to be done.

Normally, repairing the aortic valve of a 25-year-old would require heart surgery, but Katja’s case was unique.

“I was born with a heart defect and had a transplant when I was 11,” the Danish graduate student tells This Is Medtech. “As I’d already been opened up a few times and will probably need a transplant again in 10-15 years, the doctors wanted to avoid another operation,” she explains.

They decided that the safest option was to replace Katja’s aortic valve with an artificial one using a procedure called transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI), which wouldn’t require open heart surgery.

“I was very relieved that I could get the TAVI instead of open-heart-surgery. I trusted my doctors’ decision and the risk was low, but I was still very nervous,” Katja recalls.

As well as being the youngest person to ever have TAVI, Katja is the only person with a heart transplant to have undergone the procedure.

It involved inserting a narrow tube (catheter) into an artery in her groin until it reached her aortic valve, and then temporarily placing and inflating a balloon in the tight valve to stretch it open. After that, the new valve was placed in her heart, also using a balloon catheter, and then the balloon was deflated and removed.

Within 30 minutes, the job was done and Katja had a new, functioning aortic valve. She was fully recovered and back in the gym six weeks later.

Raising awareness

Katja, who’s president of GUCH, the Danish charity for young adults with congenital heart disease, is keen to show others that it’s possible to live a normal life with heart disease.

“I immediately felt a bond with the other members when I went to my first gathering,” she says of her decision to get involved with GUCH, which is part of the Danish Heart Association. “We’re all taking our meds at the restaurant, we all get tired more easily and we don’t have as much mental energy. It’s nice to be with people who have an understanding of what you’re going through.”

As president of the organisation, Katja keeps busy raising awareness about what it’s like to grow into adulthood with a congenital heart defect. “Each of us may have a different condition but we share many of the same challenges.”