Cardiac Surgery Repairs Rescue Swimmer’s Mitral Valve

Minimally invasive robotic surgery helps a man survive his heart condition and return to an active lifestyle

As a military rescue swimmer, 36-year-old Ronny German was in the best shape of his life and had no previous health problems. However, shortly after a routine dental cleaning, Ronny began to experience significant swelling in his joints, which his doctors initially diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis; a condition that runs in his family.

As his symptoms worsened, further examinations and testing revealed a heavily leaking mitral valve in Ronny’s heart.

A discovery during robot-assisted surgery

Ronny was told that he would need an operation to repair his mitral valve and chose to have the procedure using minimally invasive robotic surgery. During the robot-assisted surgery, his surgeon discovered that Ronny’s mitral valve was extensively infected.

After surgery Ronny was informed that the infection was the cause of his leaking mitral valve, and it was likely the result of the dental cleaning he received before the onset of his symptoms.

“I was shocked to learn that a routine dental cleaning could have such a serious complication,” said German. “When I was diagnosed with a heart murmur, I was never told that I should be taking antibiotics when I was having even simple dental work done.”

Moving forward after robot-assisted mitral valve repair

A recent study from the University at Buffalo in New York linked bacteria commonly found in the mouth to an increased risk of coronary heart disease and other cardiac complications.

After a successful robot-assisted mitral valve repair, Ronny recuperated at home, and within two weeks was back at his job with the U.S. Coast Guard. He received medical clearance three months after returning to work and quickly passed his rigorous monthly fitness test.

Since his surgery Ronny has taken up paddle surfing and currently participates in five- to nine-mile races, with hopes to complete the Catalina Crossing in the future.

Minimally-invasive surgery vs. traditional open heart surgery

“A leaking mitral valve is more common in older adults, but we do see patients with the condition as a result of infection,” said James Hemp, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon with the Scripps Minimally Invasive Robotic Surgery Program.

“Open cardiac surgery requires a significant amount of recovery time, but we were fortunate to be able to offer Ronny an option that would allow him to continue his very active career and lifestyle.”

Minimally invasive robot-assisted surgery provides access to the heart through five small incisions, eliminating the need for surgeons to split the breastbone and spread open the ribcage in order to gain access to the heart.

During robot-assisted surgery, tiny instruments and a three-dimensional camera are inserted through the incisions, and the surgeon controls the instruments from a console that provides a magnified view of the surgical field.

This system enhances surgical capabilities by offering even greater precision during surgery. A patient typically stays in the hospital for three to five days after minimally invasive cardiac surgery, compared to five days or more after traditional heart surgery.

While the average recovery time after open-heart surgery is six to eight weeks, recovery time with robot-assisted cardiac surgery is between two and four weeks.