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Heart

Minimally invasive valve surgery restores marathoner’s heart

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After her surgery, Shauna recalls, “I could breathe again – I didn’t realize how out of breath I was until I had it back."

Shauna Okongo was born with a bicuspid aortic valve. At 35, on a visit to the doctor, she was diagnosed with a heart murmur, which she was told wouldn’t have an effect on her until she was in her 60s or 70s. Five years later, in February 2017, Shauna ran a marathon and struggled with shortness of breath throughout the race as she never had before. By May, she was regularly fatigued and couldn’t walk far without having to catch her breath. When she lay down to sleep, she could hear the heart murmur in her chest. 

Her cardiologist at the time recommended she get another echocardiogram but otherwise did not feel any urgency about her condition. Later that week, her office sent her to the ER, where she was admitted with congestive heart failure. The new cardiologist recommended she see UT Southwestern heart surgeon Neelan Doolabh, M.D., because of his ability to operate with minimally invasive surgery.  

The cardiologist contacted Dr. Doolabh over the weekend, stating he was willing to discharge Shauna on Sunday if Dr. Doolabh could see her in clinic on Monday. As the primary caregiver for three children, Shauna knew she needed to return to work as soon as possible. She did not want the traditional open-heart surgery, which requires opening the breastbone and consequently involves a lengthy recovery period for the breastbone to heal. Dr. Doolabh’s procedure does not involve cracking the chest open, and patients are not under anesthesia with their heart stopped for an extended time.

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“The care I received from Dr. Doolabh at UT Southwestern was remarkable!” Shauna says.

At her clinic appointment, Shauna was severely short of breath, and Dr. Doolabh knew she would be best served with surgery soon, so he expedited the process.  

“I met Dr. Doolabh on a Monday. He took all of my patient history himself – he was so patient and attentive,” Shauna says.

On Tuesday, she had an angiogram, on Wednesday she had her presurgery workup, and on Thursday she was in the operating room. After her surgery, Shauna recalls, “I could breathe again – I didn’t realize how out of breath I was until I had it back.” She adds she was very pleased with the outcome of her surgery and her whole experience at UTSW.

“The care I received from Dr. Doolabh at UT Southwestern was remarkable!” she says. “I was referred to him because of his ability to perform minimally invasive surgery, and then I was out of the hospital in four days. Dr. Doolabh was there for me every step of the way.”

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