Pulmonary Valve Replacement: Andrew Sawyer’s Story

My name is Andrew Sawyer, and I’m 25 years old. Believe it or not, before I was 2 years old, I had 4 open-heart surgeries. I spent the first day of my life being transported by helicopter from Douglas, GA to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston for emergency surgery. It was there that Dr. Willis Williams performed 3 open-heart surgeries on me as he attempted to fit the right sized shunt into my heart. I was born without a pulmonary valve (a condition called pulmonary atresia), which prevented the normal flow of blood from my heart to my lungs from being replenished with oxygen.

I spent my first birthday in the hospital, where I underwent my 4th surgery. The surgeons had to place a patch over the area of my missing valve, allowing blood to flow through.

Surgery number five took place when I was in the sixth grade. The existing patch was beginning to fail, so this procedure involved the placement of a pulmonary cadaver valve, restructured my tricuspid valve, and repaired the lining of my right ventricle. Memory is a funny thing—I’ll never forget waking up from the surgery and learning that the Braves were losing to the Yankees in the World Series.

The surgeons predicted that my new pulmonary valve would last for 8-10 years, but remarkably, it lasted for 13. Once a year, I’d go in for my yearly check-up appointment and wonder if this would be the visit that the doctors told me that it was time for another surgery. Every year I heard the welcome words, “see you next year”—until the fall of October of 2009.

That fall, Dr. Book learned through my echocardiogram results that my pulmonary valve was damaged, and it was time for another surgery. I was amazed that the doctors were able to discover this through a simple echo, but technology had advanced since my last surgery, and a catheterization process was unnecessary this time around. Dr. Book and Dr. McConnell recommended that I see Dr. Kogon, a cardiothoracic surgeon specializing in adults with congenital heart defects.

From the start, I knew that I was in great hands with Dr. Kogon—he immediately made me feel at ease, and he was very clear in how he presented my options. I’m not sure I can accurately describe how surreal it was to have a conversation with Dr. Kogon about whether to go with a pig or a cow valve for my surgery. According to Dr. Kogon, there had been great advancements with animal tissue valves. He explained that this would be a better option than a human or mechanical valve—animal valves, for whatever reason, seem to last longer and yield better results. Dr. Kogon estimated that my new bovine valve would last 20-30 years.

Many people ask me if I was discouraged, or scared in reaction to the news of another surgery, but I can honestly say that I wasn’t. I’ve always had an extremely positive attitude throughout my life—this, coupled with my religious conviction carries me through tough times. Strange as it may sound, I compared the pain of my recovery period to one particularly tough summer job I had as a door-to-door salesman. That was one of the harshest, most emotionally taxing periods of my life, and it changed me somewhat. Being told “no” time and time again, and having to get up and hit the road again the next day requires strength and resilience. I realize I’m talking about two completely different types of pain here—but when I was lying in bed in pain post-surgery, that’s exactly what I thought about. I figured, “if I made it through that gut-wrenching summer of door-to-door sales, I can make it through this.”

When I think back to my 6th and most recent surgery, a few things come to mind: first, I couldn’t believe the level of service I experienced at Emory. The nurse technicians were incredibly kind and knowledgeable. I always had baths and a clean bed, and the overall level of care was just phenomenal. Even months after the operation, Dr. Kogon would stop by to visit me during my check-ups with Dr. Book and Dr. McConnell. Knowing I was in such good and capable hands was a comfort in itself.

My recovery experience as a 25-year-old was much different from my experience as a 12-year-old. The doctors explained the difference to me, saying that a 12-year-old body is made up of quite a bit of cartilage, as opposed to a 25-year-old, whose body is made up primarily of bone, causing recovery to be more painful. Even so, I was only in the hospital for 6 days, and I was able to get back to school (medication-free) within 30 days of the surgery.

Aside from being a student, I’m a musician, and over the years, my experiences have inspired me to write several songs, one of which is called “South Georgia Pine”—this video shows footage of me leaving Emory a few months after my last surgery.

I’m incredibly grateful to my family, and to all of the Emory doctors and nurse technicians who have supported me and helped me along on this journey to recovery.

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