Barbara Walters Prepares for Heart Surgery

Doctors will replace Walters' aortic valve.

May 10, 2010, 7:50 PM

May 11, 2010— -- Barbara Walters said on Monday that her upcoming heart surgery, a procedure known as an aortic valve replacement, will hopefully correct a problem of which she and her doctors have been aware for some time.

Walters, 80, finally went public on Monday when she announced on "The View" that she will undergo surgery to replace the faulty heart valve later this week.

"You know how I always say to you how healthy I am. ... I've never missed a day's work," she began. "Later this week, I'm going to have surgery to replace one faulty heart valve. Lots of people have done this, and I have known about this condition for a while now."

Walters told ABC Senior Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser that the problem was detected during an echocardiogram of her heart -- a scan that she told the audience of "The View" revealed that her valves were "getting tighter and smaller." Since this test, her doctors have been following the progression of the problem, anticipating that her aortic valve would eventually need to be replaced. Recently, Walters said, she has experienced some pressure in her upper chest.

She added that she and her doctors decided to go through with the heart valve replacement surgery now because she'll be able to take time off to recover during the summer and that her doctors expect her to make a full recovery and to be back at work in the fall.

The aortic valve is, in effect, the exit door of the heart. It is through this gateway that the blood is pumped to the rest of the body. With time, the valve can harden and become less effective at keeping blood from flowing in reverse. This hardening is known as stenosis. It can worsen to the point that it can severely affect health -- and, if untreated, it can lead to early death.

For this reason, surgery is often necessary to correct the problem before it progresses.

ABC News president David Westin said in statement, "There's no denying that this is serious surgery. But it's also a type of surgery that has been done often and successfully. And, as those of us who work with Barbara know, she's in excellent condition. So, we have every reason to expect a great result and a speedy recovery."

Other Celebrities Have Had Aortic Valve Surgery

Walters is far from the first high-profile figure to require surgery to replace the aortic valve. In March of 2009, both former first lady Barbara Bush and comedian Robin Williams had similar surgeries, and each enjoyed excellent recoveries.

According to the American Heart Association, surgeons in the United States performed 17,592 aortic valve procedures in 2007. On average, these patients spent only eight days in the hospital after their surgeries. The risk of complications associated with this procedure, including death, is less than 5 percent, doctors say.

"Degenerative aortic stenosis is the most common valve problem in patients over 70 years of age, and as the population ages it is now the most common valve problem in the industrialized world," said Dr. Aubrey Galloway, professor and chair of the department of cardiothoracic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center. "Valve replacement surgery is the primary treatment for this problem, and surgery generally returns the patient to normal functional status, with a life expectancy to that is equal to the general age-matched population without aortic stenosis."

Walters' procedure will involve open-heart surgery. Doctors will have a choice as to whether to replace her aortic valve with a mechanical valve made of metal, one made of biological tissue, a transplanted valve from a donor heart or even her own valve from another part of her heart.

"She would appear to be in relatively good overall condition, and traditional surgery, probably with a tissue valve, is the gold standard," said Dr. Jeff Brinker, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Heart & Vascular Institute in Baltimore.

Galloway said that minimally-invasive options are also available, and "the long term track record and results are good, generally returning to full activity in 6-8 weeks."

Doctors said that while the signs that an aortic valve needs to be replaced can be subtle, the symptoms worsen as the condition progresses.

"For aortic stenosis, signs of heart failure, fainting, or chest pain signal a bad prognosis without surgery," Brinker said.

Signs of a Heart Valve Problem -- and What to Do About Them

Fortunately, doctors can detect the first signs of this condition with a few simple and painless tests. Some of these tests rely on technology -- for example, an electrocardiogram, or EKG, which detects abnormal electrical activity in the heart, and an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to create a moving picture of the heart.

Other tests require little more than a stethoscope.

"In the absence of symptoms and with a normal heart exam, EKG and [echocardiogram] are not necessary," said Dr. Cam Patterson, director of the McAllister Heart Institute and chief of cardiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Regardless of the tests that a patient and her doctor choose, however, Walters said the worst thing a woman could do if she feels that she is experiencing heart symptoms is nothing.

"Women tend to ignore symptoms," she said. "Husbands always complain and women send them to the doctor, but they never go themselves."

Walters created "The View" in 1997 and has been a fixture on the ABC daytime talk show since its inception. She served as co-host of ABC News' "20/20" for 25 years and continues to contribute special broadcasts to the network.

Dr. Kelly Kyanko contributed to this report.

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