Barbara’s Heart Valve Replacement Story. Clicking on this image will cause the video to appear in a pop-up window and play.

Barbara had no idea the dizziness and fatigue she had been feeling were signs of aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve opening.

First TAVR Patient Had No Qualms

When Barbara Corotto, 89, of Napa learned that she needed a heart valve replacement, she had no doubt that she was in good hands with interventional cardiologist Mark Villalon, M.D. He earned her family’s trust as her husband’s doctor two years earlier.

The plan called for Dr. Villalon and his practice partner interventional cardiologist Saba Lahsaei, M.D., to perform Solano County’s first Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement – aka TAVR – in March at NorthBay Medical Center.

Unfortunately, Barbara slipped on her deck and broke her leg. With 10 weeks in rehab, you might think she’d have plenty of time to fret about the upcoming procedure, but when it was scheduled for August, she had no qualms.

“When Dr. Villalon said I needed it, I didn’t hesitate,” she recalled.

The diagnosis was a surprise. Sure, she’d had some dizziness and fatigue, but she attributed it to her age. She’d never had a heart issue before. It turned out that she had aortic stenosis, which is a narrowing of the aortic valve opening. Like Barbara, many people don’t realize they have it until it becomes critical.

Lucky for Barbara, medical advancements have made TAVR a minimally invasive procedure with a short recovery period. Not so many years ago, a valve replacement would have required open heart surgery, a multiple day stay in the hospital, and a painful recovery. Instead, her procedure was done in less than an hour.

“I was in the ICU overnight, and in the hospital only one day more, so they could keep an eye on me,” she said. “It didn’t hurt at all. Nothing like a broken leg.”

The partnership of Drs. Villalon and Lahsaei was solidified shortly after both physicians joined NorthBay Health in 2019. Both interventional cardiologists are passionate about their jobs and have solid experience with the TAVR procedure.

Dr. Villalon figures he has performed more than 150 TAVR procedures during a fellowship at UC San Francisco. Dr. Lahsaei performed more than 240 during a two-year fellowship at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Boston.

That, combined with a new, state-of-the-art hybrid operating room in NorthBay Medical Center’s North Wing made it the perfect time to launch a TAVR program. They joined forces with cardiovascular surgeon Shea Pribyl, M.D., and a cardiac catheterization team that was eager to learn a new procedure.

“We’ve really bonded over this,” said Dr. Villalon. “The Cath Lab team runs the show. They’re prepared, smart, humble and hungry for knowledge. It’s been great working with this team.”

The procedure involves a half-inch incision in the leg. A catheter is inserted and guided to the heart, where it is used to replace the diseased aortic valve. “The arteries are like pipes, creating our window to the valve,” explained Dr. Villalon.

“The technology has improved,” said Dr. Lahsaei. “The equipment has become better, smaller and more efficient.”

Dr. Villalon said it is estimated that the TAVR procedure could help up to 700 patients a year in Solano County and the surrounding region.

“Before we offered TAVR, patients had to travel to Sacramento, Walnut Creek or St. Helena for the procedure,” said Dr. Lahsaei. “Now it’s available close to home.”

“It’s not unusual that people don’t recognize the symptoms of aortic stenosis, but it’s actually easy for a physician to detect,” said Dr. Villalon. “A doctor can hear it by using a stethoscope during a regular exam.”

NorthBay Center for Primary Care physicians will be key in helping identify patients who can best benefit from the procedure.

“I can’t say enough wonderful things about the men and women who make up our primary care team,” said Dr. Villalon. “They’re compassionate doctors toward every single human being they see. I can tell when I get their notes and their referrals. Not only can we help them save our patients’ lives with TAVR, we give our patients an improved quality of life,” he said. “That’s a rarity to be able to give them both.”

Within weeks Barbara made a full recovery from the procedure and is feeling fine.

“I didn’t realize what was going on before,” she said. “Now I understand that I was experiencing some heart palpitations, like a rapid heartbeat, and that’s gone. No more dizziness, no symptoms. I feel great, really!”

Her message to the physicians and the cardiac cath lab team: “Thank you so much! Really, thank you.”

Learn more about the TAVR service at NorthBay here.