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Honoring Our Veterans

Ray Tollefson, WWII U.S. Army Ranger and U-M TAVR patient shares his story

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Ray Tollefson realized his dream of traveling to France for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Ray Tollefson barely survived World War II. As a U.S. Army Ranger, the 89-year-old remembers D-Day well, including the severe injuries he sustained during the battle at Normandy, and his ultimate mission to stay alive. Ray not only survived the war, he went on to live a full, happy life, which continues today, thanks to the Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR) he received at the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center for his aortic stenosis. His life-saving TAVR procedure enabled Ray to fulfill an important wish: to travel to France this year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Aortic stenosis is a condition in which the aortic valve does not open fully, decreasing blood flow from the heart to the body. Although open-heart surgery is the treatment of choice for aortic stenosis, about one-third of patients with this disease are not candidates for the surgery and stand to benefit from less invasive heart valve replacement options. Ray’s medical history placed him at high risk for open-heart surgery.

Ray’s “miracle”

In the late 1980s, Ray says his health was deteriorating to the point where he was not living a full life anymore. “It got to be where I just hung around and didn’t want to do much of anything,” he says. “My doctor and I made the decision to check out the University of Michigan. The first time I met Dr. Stanley Chetcuti, his thinking was, ‘Hey, we’re going to take care of you.’ Period.”

Dr. Chetcuti says Ray was struggling when he came to see him. “He’s a go-getter and the joy of living was in still in him, yet he was crippled by his aortic condition. Thankfully, Ray realized a positive TAVR outcome.” Ray says he went in on a Thursday, had his operation on Friday and was released on Monday. “On Tuesday, I was able to make the 300-mile trip home, with not one stitch.”

Always an optimist, Ray says he “went along with what the U-M team told me. Anybody I see nowadays is amazed at how active I am and how normal I am compared to the way I used to be. What they did for me is a miracle.”

Keeping a promise

Prior to surgery, Ray told Dr. Chetcuti of his desire to attend a few more Normandy reunions, saying, “There aren’t many of us left.” After surgery, and cleared to travel to France for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he promised to send Dr. Chetcuti a postcard. Today, that postcard is one of the most treasured mementos on display in Dr. Chetcuti’s office. “He kept his promise to me.”

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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.