U-M bicuspid aortic valve patient faces challenges head-on

Thelma Thompson proves to be "one tough woman"

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Photograph by Leisa Thompson


Thelma Thompson was never one to shy away from exercise. At 67, she was accustomed to playing 36 holes of golf in a single day. When she noticed she was tiring more easily, Thelma chalked it up to “age.” But she realized her diagnosis was much more serious than she suspected when she suffered a heart attack in 2013. Thelma was shocked to discover her coronary artery was 95 percent blocked. At the same time, she was diagnosed with a bicuspid aortic valve and an aneurysm of her thoracic ascending aorta.

Thelma underwent surgery for her blocked artery at her local hospital, and was then referred to the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center in January 2015 for treatment of her bicuspid valve and aortic aneurysm.

What is a bicuspid aortic valve?

A bicuspid aortic valve is a defect in the heart’s aortic valve that is present at birth. Normally, the aortic valve has three flaps controlling blood flow. But a person with a bicuspid aortic valve has only two flaps. Over time, the valve becomes calcified and may not completely open, preventing blood from being pumped out of the heart into the body or may not completely close, causing blood to leak back into the heart.

Complications of bicuspid aortic valve disease include aortic stenosis (blocked valve), aortic insufficiency (leaky valve), aortic aneurysm and dissection, all of which may be life threatening. Approximately 2 percent of the population has a bicuspid aortic valve, a condition that is twice as common in males as in females.

Although some people with a bicuspid valve are asymptomatic, the most common symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath, during exercise or when you are lying in bed
  • Constant tiredness or fatigue
  • Coughing at night or when in bed
  • Rapid or fluttering heart palpitations
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Chest pain (tightness, angina)
  • Fainting episodes

An unexpected setback

Thelma’s bicuspid valve replacement and aneurysm surgeries, which were performed by U-M cardiac surgeon Dr. G. Michael Deeb and his team, went well. Shortly after, she was back to her regular work routine and regained her strength. But more than a year later, she began having extreme unexplained back pain. When a visit to her internist detected an infection in her bloodstream, she was immediately transferred to U-M. The infection was traced to bacteria that entered her bloodstream as a result of dental work performed several months before.

Thelma’s condition was critical and was complicated by a bleed into her brain. She spent 45 days at U-M, where her infection was treated with antibiotics. Dr. Deeb determined that her new valve and graft were infected and would need to be replaced. However, surgery would have to wait until her recovery from the bleed.

With treatment of brain bleed resolved, surgery was scheduled to replace the infected valve and graft. Nine hours later, Thelma was on her way to a successful recovery. She remembers the first words Dr. Deeb spoke to her following surgery: “You are one tough woman,” she recalls him saying.

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Thelma and her husband, Mike, recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Photograph by Leisa Thompson

Focused on recovery

“I knew Dr. Deeb would pull me through,” Thelma says. “He’s an excellent doctor. The entire U-M CVC team took good care of me.”

Today, with the support of her husband, Mike (they recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary), Thelma is feeling strong and looking forward to getting back to her golf game this spring. “This is not something I want to go through again,” she says.

Take the next step:

Frankel-informal-vertical-sigThe University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.