This Survivor Spotlight is presented by Saint Francis Hospital – a member of Trinity Health of New England
Briana Visone grew up knowing she had a heart murmur. However, her doctors were never concerned enough to seek further explanation. It was not until 2013 when Briana switched to a new physician that it was questioned. She was sent for an echocardiogram to make sure there were no major issues with her heart. The echo came back showing that Briana was born with a bicuspid aortic valve.
While this knowledge was not known to Briana or her family, it was not surprising since her father was also born with a bicuspid aortic valve and it happens to be the most common congenital heart defect. The aortic valve is the largest artery in the human body. It normally has three flaps, called leaflets. However, both Briana and her father were born with bicuspid valves, meaning that two of the leaflets were fused together. This results in a smaller area for the blood to flow. This abnormality can cause a buildup of calcium, called stenosis, which, over time, makes the blood flow even more irregular. At the age of 30, Briana was told that she would need to have the valve replaced in the future. The timeline to have an aortic valve replaced is very dependent on the person. Some people do not need a replacement until their 70’s and 80’s while others, like Briana, her late 30’s.
Briana had yearly echocardiograms to keep track of the stenosis in her valve. Her cardiologist would analyze the rate of stenosis growth over time. In late 2020, her cardiologist told Briana that based on the rate of increased stenosis in her aortic valve, she would need to have her valve replaced in the next two years. He also recommended that due to her age, a mechanical valve would be a good option for her.
In June of 2021, Briana had an updated echocardiogram and her cardiologist informed her that she now had severe stenosis and would need to have her aortic valve replaced. This came as a shock as Briana thought she had another year before this would be needed. Additionally, her father Anthony was scheduled to have his valve replaced within the next month.
Briana met with a surgeon to discuss the best option for the type of valve she would receive. For those who choose a mechanical valve such as Anthony, they must be on blood thinners for the rest of their lives. At the age of 38, Briana had not yet had children. A mechanical valve could be dangerous if she were to have a baby in the future. So, she had to consider three options. First, she could choose to not have children. Second, she could get a mechanical valve and go through a risky pregnancy. Or third, get a bovine (cow) or porcine (pig) valve to make pregnancy safer; however, this would mean a second open heart surgery in 10 – 15 years. Briana chose the third option, hoping that in the coming years the technology for this surgery would be improved and surgery would be simpler.
Typically, patients wait to have their bicuspid aortic valve replaced when symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, or irregular heart rate affect their day-to-day lives. However, being a high school teacher, Briana did not want to have the surgery during the school year and chose to have it as quickly as possible. She had her valve replaced with a bovine valve on July 13, 2021 – just 2.5 weeks after her father had the same surgery!
The surgery went smoothly, and she spent six days in the hospital recovering. Briana’s mother Liz had her hands full with two recovering family members, but the close-knit family was able to get through it. Anthony was cleared to drive soon after Briana came home from the hospital and was able to keep her company and drive her to doctor’s appointments throughout her recovery.
Recuperating from surgery is not linear. Some days, Briana felt like her old self while others she was quite tired. Once back in the classroom, Briana had to rest even more to keep up with her students. However, within two months she felt almost completely healed. While she had a small setback in November, she now feels completely recovered and ready to move on to being the energetic and active person she was prior to her surgery.