By Stephanie Lucero

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – One of the most common heart problems in the world – when the aortic heart valve starts to tighten and close over time, it can lead to a very slow and painful death. It is a treatable problem, but many people are unable to get the required surgery in time.

According to doctors, 50 percent of those who have this type of valve problem die within two years of developing the symptoms.

Open heart surgery was needed to fix the issue, but not anymore. A new type of medical procedure being performed in North Texas is giving all types of patients a second chance at life.

Jerry Hartley stopped playing golf about three years ago. He no longer had the energy and had experienced shortness of breath on a number of occasions. The 77-year-old passed out while mowing his lawn. Hartley was diagnosed with Aortic Stenosis.

Hartley had triple-bypass surgery more than a decade ago, in 1999, for a blocked artery. So, when his cardiologist said in November that his aortic valve was failing, Hartley got really scared. “I asked him if it would be necessary to break my chest to do the operation,” he recalled. “I just didn’t want to do that.”

But Hartley became a candidate for Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement. Rather than the traditional open heart surgery, a team of doctors make a small incision in the chest or groin area and insert a new valve, delivered to the heart on a catheter. The new valve stays in place with the help of a stent.

Medical City Dallas was the first of three hospitals to try this minimally-invasive procedure on older, frail and sick patients. “When we started this trial, we focused on the sickest of the sick, the most frail patients who probably couldn’t survive open heart surgery,” explained Dr. Todd Dewey with the hospital.

“It’s revolutionary in a sense,” said Dewey, part of the cardiology team that evaluates and conducts the procedure. “We can replace valves and make them function again without stopping the heart, without opening the chest, without using the heart lung machine.”

And doctors have now been given permission to perform this procedure on younger and healthier patients. “They too are suffering,” explained Dr. Bruce Bowers, also part of the cardiology team, “but they’re not as frail and debilitated coming into the operation as that first group of patients were.”

Doctors now expect to operate on about six patients each week.

Hartley had the surgery two months ago, and he is feeling great. “I’ve got a lot of energy now and everything is good. It really is,” he said. “And it was good the day after I had the procedure. I mean, it was a different world.” He is now back out on the golf course.

Traditional open heart surgery typically includes months of recovery time. This new style of surgery only requires four or five days of recovery.

Two other hospitals in Houston are performing the procedure as well. The team in Dallas has helped about 300 patients since 2007. It is still considered experimental by the Food and Drug Administration.

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