When Robert Prielipp of Lexington was just 24 years old, he lost his father to heart failure. Robert’s father was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, the most common congenital heart defect. A normal aortic valve has three leaflets that open and close to allow oxygenated blood out of the heart into the body. In a bicuspid aortic valve, two of the leaflets are fused. Sometimes, that can cause the valve to be narrowed or leak, making it harder for the heart to pump blood. Over time, it can cause the heart muscle to thicken and lead to heart failure.
The doctor told Robert’s mother it would be wise for Robert to have his heart checked as well, since a bicuspid aortic valve is common and can be hereditary.
Robert was always active in his youth. “I played basketball, football, baseball and golf. I also ran 5K races. I never had an issue with anything,” he said. But his father’s death prompted him to see a cardiologist once he reached his 30s.
Robert learned he suffered from the same heart defect. “My doctor said that I had a heart murmur, but that I probably wouldn’t have to worry about having my aortic valve repaired until sometime in my 60s.”
With continued monitoring, all was well until Robert hit his 40s, when his doctor expressed concern that the valve might be deteriorating faster than originally expected.
“Tests showed that there was a buildup of calcium in the valve,” he said. “I kept thinking that my dad was just 52 when he passed away and his brother was even younger.”
Robert was an avid runner, completing three-mile jogs several times a week. He began noticing that it would take him longer to finish his workout – and he was becoming more easily winded.
At Lexington Cardiovascular Surgery, a Lexington Medical Center physician practice, Dee Prastein, MD, recommended that he have aortic valve replacement surgery sooner rather than later. Dr. Prastein said his aortic valve was severely deteriorated and he had an enlarging aneurysm, both of which needed to be addressed surgically.
The defective valve would be replaced with either a mechanical or tissue valve. In August of 2015, Robert underwent open heart surgery at Lexington Medical Center.
Robert credits Dr. Prastein with easing his concerns over the surgery. “I had a lot of anxiety prior to the surgery, not knowing what to expect,” he recalled. “But she would even call me after my appointments to make sure she had answered all my questions. That was extremely helpful for me.” And Dr. Prastein included Robert in the decision process for determining what type of valve replacement would be best for him and his lifestyle.
With surgery and recovery now behind him, Robert is feeling great. “I enrolled in Lexington Medical Center’s cardiac rehabilitation program after surgery. I was able to build my endurance back up and I’m feeling back to my old self. I’m pretty much doing everything that I did before.”
That includes regular jogs at the Lexington High School track near his home – where his time for a three-mile run is now steadily improving.
While Robert didn’t exhibit the same symptoms as his father – difficulty breathing, and swelling in his feet and legs – he knows that he learned from the tragedy of losing his father and he hopes others will benefit, too. “I’ve been telling everyone that it doesn’t hurt to get looked at. Just because you feel well, as I did, doesn’t necessarily mean all is well, especially when it comes to your heart,” he said. “When you turn 40, just have a checkup. If everything is fine, then great. If not, then hopefully, you caught the problem early. As my 95-year-old grandmother says, ‘Just take it one day at a time.’”