Veterans: Are You at Risk for Heart Disease? - Veterans Health Administration
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Veterans: Are You at Risk for Heart Disease?

Doctor shows a Veteran a model of the heart

Dr. Emmanouil Brilakis and Veteran Edward Baker discuss heart surgery.

By Hans Petersen, VA Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2015

VA is doing wonderful things for Veterans with heart problems.

It’s American Heart Month and here comes that list again of things you know you should be doing. But first, let’s tell you the story of Army Veteran Edward Baker.

“I was having bad shortness of breath. I couldn’t walk further than the front of the VA building to the lab. That’s how I knew that something was wrong,” says Baker.

When he told his Primary Care doctor of his shortness of breath, he was immediately referred to Cardiology where he was told about a condition called mitral regurgitation.

“I wanted to live, that is what I wanted to do, I wanted to live” says Baker who today has much to be thankful for. He was the first Veteran to undergo MitraClip surgery at VA North Texas.

The MitraClip Percutaneous Mitral Valve Repair System is the first device available to safely perform percutaneous mitral valve repair.

“The procedure was a tremendous success. The pressures in his heart immediately decreased and the patient symptoms immediately improved,” says Dr. Emmanouil Brilakis, Baker’s cardiologist.

First VA in Nation to Perform MitraClip Surgery

Dr. Brilakis was extremely proud that the VA North Texas Cardiologist team was the first to perform this specialized procedure. “This was a technically challenging procedure but was accomplished with the assistance of the OR and cardiology personnel in addition to the administrative support from our Administrative Officer, Pamela Alexander,” said Brilakis.

“We provide world-class care at VA North Texas, and this clinical advancement is another example of our commitment to improve the health and well-being of our North Texas Veterans,” said Jeff Milligan, Director of VA North Texas.

Mitral regurgitation (MR) is a condition in which the heart’s mitral valve leaflets do not close tightly. When this happens, blood flows backward from the heart’s left ventricle into the left atrium. The heart must then work harder to push blood through the body, which can cause fatigue, shortness of breath and worsening heart failure. MR is the most common type of heart valve insufficiency in the United States, and approximately 50,000 patients require surgery each year.

Vietnam Veteran No Longer Needs the Meds

If you think you can’t do it, read this story about Vietnam Veteran Dennis Rigatti and think again. At the age of 66, Rigatti joined VA New York Harbor Healthcare System’s MOVE! ® Telephone Lifestyle Coaching Program. With his determination to maintain a balanced nutrition and exercise regimen, he lost 31 pounds. After taking medication to control his blood pressure for over 40 years, he is proud to report that his doctor has discontinued it and he is maintaining a normal blood pressure with a healthy lifestyle.

While it’s great to know lifesaving options are available at VA Medical Centers, it’s even smarter to take care of your heart and avoid the need for surgery.

Here’s What You Can Do

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) — including heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure — is the number one killer of women and men in the United States.

You can control a number of risk factors for CVD, including:

  • Diet
  • Physical activity
  • Tobacco use
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Diabetes

As you begin your journey to better heart health that can last a lifetime, here are some suggestions from the Center for Disease Control to keep in mind:

  • Try not to become overwhelmed. Every step brings you closer to a healthier heart, and every healthy choice makes a difference!
  • Partner up. The journey is more fun — and often more successful — when you have company. Ask friends and family to join you.
  • Don’t get discouraged. You may not be able to take all of the steps at one time. Get a good night’s sleep — also important for a healthy heart — and do what you can tomorrow.
  • Reward yourself. Find fun things to do to decrease your stress. Round up some colleagues for a lunchtime walk, join a singing group, or have a healthy dinner with your family or friends.

Plan for Prevention

Try out these strategies for better heart health. You’ll be surprised how many of them can become lifelong habits.

  • Work with your health care team.
  • Monitor your blood pressure
  • Get your cholesterol checked.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Manage your diabetes.
  • Take your medicine.

Together, we all can prevent and manage heart disease, one step at a time.