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Jean Whittenberg

A patient shares: How I recovered from totally blocked arteries

Chronic total occlusions are arteries that are 100 percent blocked by plaque. These arteries are blocked for several months, if not years. Two procedures can treat this condition: bypass surgery or a non-invasive procedure done in the cath lab. Colonel Jean Whittenberg experienced both.

Col. Whittenberg experienced his first heart problems years ago. An avid golfer, he said he started having chest pains when he carried his golf bag. After seeing his doctor, Col. Whittenberg learned he had an almost completely blocked left main coronary artery. He had coronary bypass surgery within a few short days after learning his diagnosis.

Bypass surgery recovery

“The recovery from that was pretty severe,” he says. “It took two or three weeks before I felt all right walking again.”

After the bypass surgery, he went years before he began to experience more heart pain, or angina. This time, his condition was even more serious.

“I ended up having two arteries that were 100 percent blocked,” he says.

This condition is known as chronic total occlusion. Fortunately, there was a minimally invasive procedure that could treat the condition.

How the non-invasive chronic total occlusion procedure works

As a minimally invasive procedure, doctors enter the body through an artery in the leg to approach the heart. Using guide wires the size of a human hair and with the help of live X-ray imaging, they advance through the coronary blockage. Once through, a balloon is inflated, allowing for the placement of very small, specialized metal stents.

Embedded within the artery wall, the stents serve as a scaffolding to help hold the artery open and prevent recurrent blockage.

“In comparison to the bypass surgery, this procedure was very easy,” Col. Whittenberg says. “I had no pain and it was quick, too.”

He says the cath lab procedure gave him hope.

“Prior to the procedure, I was doing nothing more than waiting to die,” he says. “There was nothing more doctors could really do. As you know, arterial heart disease continues to affect a person over time and it gets worse."

Ultimately, heart disease can be fatal.

“I really didn’t have any idea how long I would live, but I knew darn well this condition was going to kill me,” he says.

Chronic total occlusion recovery

However, after having the life-saving cath lab procedure, he says he is now able to perform activities he couldn’t before, such as walking and playing outside with his dog. Now he’s “enjoying life like a real person should.”

His advice to other patients with chronic total occlusion?

“If they offer you the opportunity to get this procedure, take it. It’s the best thing medically that has ever happened to me in my life,” he says.

Internationally recognized as a leader in the treatment of complex coronary disease, Piedmont is one of only a few hospitals in the country to offer this non-invasive treatment for chronic total occlusions. Nationwide, the success rate with this procedure is about 60 percent. At Piedmont, the success rate is 89 to 90 percent.

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