Bill Cunningham's Life-Change Heart Surgery

700 WLW afternoon host Bill Cunningham isn’t a stranger to the importance of maintaining heart health. Seven years ago, his friend, who is a doctor, suggested Cunningham come in for a quick medical imaging scan. Cunningham shrugged as to why — he was 65 and healthy, running marathons, and playing racquetball and golf often — but he obliged. Much to Cunningham’s surprise, the scan showed some concerns, and he was advised to pursue additional testing.

Cunningham said friends recommended prominent institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and New York Presbyterian Hospital, but he knew the best option was in his backyard. As such, he went to The Christ Hospital for an echocardiogram, where it was identified that he had a bicuspid aortic valve — an aortic valve that only has two leaflets, instead of three — his heart was working harder than it should.

Cunningham’s doctor, Dean Kereiakes, MD, Medical Director of The Christ Hospital Heart & Vascular Center (and at the time, medical director of the Carl & Edyth Lindner Center for Research and Education at The Christ Hospital), and professor of clinical medicine at Ohio State University, created a plan with Cunningham to keep an eye on his condition, monitoring his progress every year, and advised he come in if any new symptoms arise. This January, Cunningham’s wife, retired First District Court of Appeals Judge Penelope Cunningham, noticed him slowing down while on vacation in Florida. And while the signs were subtle and Bill refused to make a call to Kereiakes at first, Penelope said she ultimately saved her husband’s life.

Cunningham went back to Kereiakes on Jan. 31, upon his return to Ohio, where he was presented with two options:
“Put simply, he said we have to implant a new aortic valve,” Cunningham said. “But we can do it one of two ways — there’s door one, and there’s door two. Door one is open heart surgery — open up the aorta, open up the heart, put in a new valve. Stop the lungs, stop the heart, intensive care, intensive rehab. Door two is a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), a SAPIEN 3, through a clinical research trial. It’s not something I had heard of, but given the intensity of the first option, I needed to know more about the second.”

Open-heart surgery would leave Cunningham in the hospital for six to seven days and at home recovering for several weeks, so Cunningham opted for the TAVR, a procedure leaving only a Band-Aid near the groin area that doesn’t require a patient to be put to sleep. Through tiny holes, the new valve would be inserted, replacing the old valve, which would keep Cunningham’s blood flowing normally again for at least another 10 years.

Cunningham, now 71, successfully underwent the procedure to implant a new aortic valve through his femoral artery on April 4. He was home on April 5 and back to work on April 12. His first radio show guest upon his return was Kereiakes.

Cunningham said he chose The Christ Hospital because they have been pioneers in the development of TAVR and were the first hospital in the region to offer this minimally invasive option to patients.

“Our team has more experience with TAVR than any other hospital in the region, performing almost 900 TAVR procedures for symptomatic aortic stenosis,” Kereiakes said. “This is critical since physicians and hospitals with higher volumes of the TAVR procedure mean better outcomes for patients.”

Cunningham said The Christ Hospital was the only option for him and he wouldn’t have trusted anyone but Kereiakes.

“I wanted a world-class heart facility,” he said. “I only have one heart and it’s giving me one life. I needed a professional that has done this hundreds of times, multiple times a day. For Kereiakes, this was like going through a drive-thru for a hamburger, but he knew that for me this was life or death. He treated me like a patient, a friend, and though it’s something he does repeatedly, like it was the only thing on his to-do list. An hour after the procedure, I was in recovery. Three hours later, I was out of intensive care. Twenty hours later, I was home. I wanted a doctor who would act with precision, with speed and with care — and I was so fortunate that the most world-class facility was right here in Cincinnati.”

Kereiakes said this kind of care comes naturally to him and The Christ Hospital. "We would not do something on a patient that we would not do on a family member that has the same problem,” he said. “It has been my goal, passion and mission to provide access for people in Cincinnati to the latest leading-edge innovations in cardiovascular medicine, and this is just one example of the steps we’re taking to do that.”

At The Christ Hospital Health Network, the heart valve experts at the Valve Center of Excellence offer the latest newest, most advanced treatments not available at many hospitals in the region. Call 513-206-1222 or click to schedule an appointment online