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updated: 7/13/2012 8:16 AM

Glen Ellyn WWII veteran, 93, pioneers new heart surgery

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  • Anthony "Duff" Hufnagel, 93, of Glen Ellyn, meets with nurse Suzanne Wallace to follow up on his pioneering heart valve replacement surgery.

       Anthony "Duff" Hufnagel, 93, of Glen Ellyn, meets with nurse Suzanne Wallace to follow up on his pioneering heart valve replacement surgery.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Nurse Suzanne Wallace examines Anthony "Duff" Hufnagel of Glen Ellyn, who was the first person to have a transcatheter aortic valve replacement surgery at Edward Hospital.

       Nurse Suzanne Wallace examines Anthony "Duff" Hufnagel of Glen Ellyn, who was the first person to have a transcatheter aortic valve replacement surgery at Edward Hospital.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • The newly approved Sapien valve, manufactured by Edwards Lifesciences, is a bovine valve flap that can be implanted through an artery in the groin or chest using transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI), a procedure similar to balloon angioplasty.

      The newly approved Sapien valve, manufactured by Edwards Lifesciences, is a bovine valve flap that can be implanted through an artery in the groin or chest using transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI), a procedure similar to balloon angioplasty.
    courtesy Edward Hospital

  • This computer-generated image simulates Hufnagel's closed aortic valve.

      This computer-generated image simulates Hufnagel's closed aortic valve.
    courtesy of Edward Hospital

  • This computer-generated image simulates Hufnagel's new, fully expanded aortic valve.

      This computer-generated image simulates Hufnagel's new, fully expanded aortic valve.
    courtesy of Edward Hospital

 
 

So little oxygenated blood was pumping through Anthony "Duff" Hufnagel's clogged aortic valve that simply breathing had become a chore.

In May, doctors gave him less than six months to live.

At age 93, the Glen Ellyn man could beat those odds, though, by undergoing a radical new surgery to replace the heart valve. Doctors said Hufnagel was too old for traditional open heart surgery and suggested the new procedure that runs a catheter through the groin and to the clogged valve.

Hufnagel's surgery consisted of a bovine valve flap being implanted through an artery in his groin using a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR, a procedure similar to balloon angioplasty, said Dr. Mark Goodwin, lead cardiologist for Hufnagel's surgery performed at Edward Hospital in Naperville.

A stent, with the new valve sewn inside, was inserted through the catheter. When the new valve was lined up with the failing valve, doctors inflated the balloon to insert the stent and put the new valve in place.

The patient, whose nickname comes from an early 1900s comic strip daredevil named Rainbow Duffy, was feeling strong -- and feisty -- after his June 28 surgery.

"There's nothing wrong with my heart. I've got a good strong heart. I don't have a bad organ in my body," Hufnagel said. "But the doctor said the procedure could give me 7 more years of fishing, so what the hell."

Goodwin, medical director of Edward's Cardiac Catheterization Lab, said Hufnagel was an ideal candidate for the procedure.

"Most patients should have the traditional open-heart surgery where we sew in the new valve," Goodwin said. "But for patients whose age or other conditions prohibit open-heart surgery from being an option, this is a great, great way to treat patients."

Shortly after being diagnosed with aortic valve stenosis in May, Duff and his wife, Belle, decided to continue with a previously planned 16-day trip to Italy in early June.

"I had the trip planned first and the doctor was saying I may not live long enough to take another, so we got it in," he said. But the altitude and the climbing he endured did nothing but further convince the wily World War II veteran that the surgery was necessary.

"They built all of the darned towns up on hills. I had to climb hills and that was rough," he said. "Every hill I climbed seemed to get more and more steep."

A little more than a week after returning from vacation, Duff was bound for surgery.

Edward officials say theirs was the first hospital in the outlying suburbs to do the procedure.

The patient came in with high expectations.

"I did tell them that they better have me feeling at least as good when I get out of here as I did when I came in. I'm not yet, but I'm getting better every day."

Asked if he was nervous, the former POW who was held in German camps and marched through the countryside in 1944 said being nervous wasn't an option.

"I've come too close to dying too many times to be nervous," he said. "I've gotten to the point where this stuff doesn't bother me anymore, dying and stuff like that. The hardest thing I've lived through was being a POW."

Nearly two weeks after his surgery, Hufnagel said he's still a little sore but has noticed his breathing has improved as more oxygenated blood is getting pumped through his heart. He's still less than impressed with the medical technology that is likely to add years to his life.

"Who knows? The doctors said I only had six months to live before," he said. "So if I die in six months, anyway, this will have all been a big waste of time."

Goodwin, who has performed the procedure several times in Germany before the FDA approved it in America in November, was significantly more optimistic.

"It's an almost immediate relief because the calcium buildup acts as a kink in the hose with the pressure forcing the heart to pump blood essentially through a pinhole," Goodwin said.

The doctor also predicted his patient may very well get his seven more years of fishing.

"Once you get to 80, you're significantly more likely to get to 90, and when you get to 90 the odds increase further that you can reach 100," Goodwin said. "Aside from this clogged valve, Duff is so healthy, I absolutely expect him to reach 100."

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