Robin Williams' Heart Surgery: What's the Prognosis?

Docs say the comedian has a lot going for him as he prepares for heart surgery.

ByDan Childs<br>abc News Medical Unit
March 06, 2009, 12:38 PM

March 6, 2009&#151; -- Despite a personal history of alcoholism, a family history of heart failure and being forced to cancel a comedic tour due to a heart-related problem, 57-year-old Robin Williams will likely emerge safely from his upcoming heart surgery, heart doctors agree.

According to Associated Press reports, Williams canceled four shows of his "Weapons of Self-Destruction" tour in Florida earlier in the week after he experienced shortness of breath and was taken to a Miami hospital.

In a statement issued Thursday, Williams' publicist, Diane Rosen, said that the renowned comedian and actor needs an aortic valve replacement -- the same type of surgery that former first lady Barbara Bush underwent on Wednesday. Bush is reportedly recovering well from her operation.

Williams was also quoted in the statement as saying, "I'm so touched by everyone's support and well wishes... This tour has been amazing fun and I can't wait to get back out on the road after a little tune-up."

Williams' publicists have not revealed when or at what hospital his surgery will take place. A message left for further comment was not immediately returned.

But though details remain scarce, heart doctors said aortic valve replacement today is a fairly routine procedure and that Williams will likely emerge unscathed.

"The prognosis is actually quite good, assuming that the procedure is limited to the aortic valve they are replacing," said Dr. Timothy Gardner, president of the American Heart Association and medical director of the Center for Heart and Vascular Health for the Christiana Care Health System.

"In someone who is healthy, despite being in their late 50s, there is a very low operative risk of failure, death or complications."

Dr. Richard Shemin, chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, noted that the procedure is not an uncommon one, even in patients as young as Williams.

"Aortic valve replacement surgery is quite commonly performed these days," he said.

According to statistics from 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.

Williams' Brother Died of Heart Failure

"It is not a no-risk procedure; this is open heart surgery," Gardner said. But he added that he believes that the risk of complications associated with this procedure, including death, is less than 5 percent.

If Williams has had any prior heart difficulties, he has kept them from the media. However, Williams' family has not been untouched by heart disease. In 2007, his brother Robert Todd Williams passed away from heart failure at the age of 69.

Williams has also openly admitted a battle with alcoholism, which sent him to a rehabilitation clinic in 2006 after 20 years of sobriety. Two months after he checked himself in, he spoke to anchor Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" about the continuation of his struggle with alcoholism, as well as cocaine abuse, in the early 1980s.

Past research has shown that heavy drinking over time can damage the heart and increase the chances of certain cardiovascular illnesses. However, Gardner said Williams' specific condition is almost certainly unrelated to his past alcoholism.

"There is no connection between alcoholism or alcohol abuse and aortic valve problems," he said. "It is also very unlikely that his past alcohol abuse has affected his heart because we see him having been fully functional and fine before this."

Williams' current problem with his aortic valve may even be congenital; Gardner and Shemin agreed that even slightly deformed aortic valves can function normally until patients reach middle age, after which symptoms surface for some.

Shemin said that while there are a number of ways that the surgery can be performed, all involve cutting the faulty valve out and replacing it. During the procedure, doctors will hook Williams up to a machine that will keep Williams' blood oxygenated and flowing through his body, allowing them to stop Williams' heart for part of the three- to four-hour procedure.

"It is necessary to stop the heart to protect the mucles of the heart when you're doing the replacement," Shemin said.

Despite the serious-sounding nature of this part of the procedure, however, Shemin said that most patients are well enough two weeks after the surgery to walk a mile -- and are completely recovered after just four to six weeks.

"These operations restore people back to their totally normal life activities and abilities to do things," he said. "Almost always it restores them back to a totally normal lifespan."

Gardner said that it is likely that Williams will have surgery sometime within the next couple of weeks, and the procedure will probably involve the replacement of Williams' own valve with a mechanical valve or one made from pig or cow tissue.

Nancy Quade contributed to this report.

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