Pictured: Rosemary Reilly Patient (left) & Sheena Rock Rosemary’s daughter (right)
Professor Ivan Casserly
Consultant Interventional Cardiologist, Mater Hospitals, Dublin
Rosemary Reilly’s breathlessness and swollen legs were symptoms of aortic stenosis – a potentially fatal heart condition. A minimally invasive valve replacement procedure saved her life.
Rosemary Reilly, at 88 years old, just gets on with life and doesn’t like to complain. So her children were extremely concerned in January when she admitted that she was having trouble breathing.
“It was a frightening feeling,” remembers Rosemary, who lives with her daughter, Sheena Rock, and Sheena’s husband, David. “It was the first time my breathing had been affected that badly. I was in a terrible state.”
There were subtle clues that Rosemary’s health had been deteriorating. When admitted for a hip operation, doctors found then, that she had a heart murmur. However, due to a lack of other symptoms, no further diagnosis was pursued. “But her legs had been giving her an awful lot of trouble” says Sheena. “She’d been taking painkillers because her legs were extremely swollen and hard due to a build-up of fluid, and she wasn’t sleeping well.”
Know the symptoms of aortic stenosis
Now, however, other symptoms started to appear, Rosemary’s breathlessness was so bad that Sheena and her brothers called the doctor. “We were concerned about mum going into hospital because of the pandemic,” admits Sheena. “But the doctor explained that they couldn’t do anything for her at home.”
After arriving at the A&E in Navan, Rosemary underwent various tests. By this time her condition had worsened, and she was admitted to the ICU and put on oxygen. Later, after stabilising, Rosemary was transferred to a ward and told that she was experiencing the symptoms of aortic stenosis (AS), a potentially fatal heart valve condition.
In a minority of people, the aortic valve can progressively degenerate, calcify and narrow with advancing age, explains Professor Ivan Casserly, Consultant Interventional Cardiologist at Mater Hospitals, Dublin. “This impairs blood from flowing out of the main pumping chamber of the heart and being delivered around the body,” he says. “The obstruction caused by the severely narrowed aortic valve caused fluid to back up into her lungs and swelling in her legs. Her presentation was dramatic: she was even experiencing shortness of breath in bed at night.”
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Finding the best treatment
It was decided that the best course of treatment for Rosemary would be transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI), a minimally invasive procedure to replace the valve.
“The alternative to TAVI would be open heart surgery,” says Professor Casserly. “But at Rosemary’s age, the risks of that sort of operation would be high. There is still a small risk of serious complications with the TAVI procedure, but it’s minimally invasive and recovery is usually very quick. So, if you experience symptoms of breathlessness, it is important to see your GP for an assessment that includes listening to your heart with a stethoscope. The murmur that is heard with the stethoscope is a clue that you might have aortic stenosis as a cause of your symptoms.”
Rosemary had the procedure at the Mater Private Hospital in Dublin. “If I’d been the Queen Mother I couldn’t have been looked after better!” she says. “Everybody was wonderful to me, explained exactly what was happening and kept my family in constant contact.” With COVID-secure procedures in place, she also felt extremely safe.
Rosemary returned home a couple of days later and is now back to her usual self. “I’ve had no pain in my legs and no breathlessness,” she says. “I haven’t even had to take a painkiller. I feel absolutely wonderful, all thanks to the doctors and staff.”
Sheena, David, Tony and Sean have been delighted to see the change in their mum. “She’s getting better every day,” says Sheena. “Previously, she was out of bed by 5.30am because she couldn’t bear the pain in her legs, but now she doesn’t get up until 7.30am. She looks great and she’s sleeping. She likes to sit outside in the summer, so when the better weather comes, she’ll be able to do that. She’s a different person, which is so brilliant to see.”