Ken Wulfeck is young at heart by anybody's definition. "I'm very focused on my health," he said. "I'm not overweight and I work out religiously, so I'm in pretty good shape for 61." At his annual physical this year in February, his doctor agreed and gave him a good report. "Everything was great," said Ken.
Then in May, at a pre-op check for a planned cataract removal, the doctor heard a heart murmur. "The ultrasound detected some backflow through my mitral valve," said Ken. "But he said it was moderate." At a follow-up cardiologist visit, the cardiologist labeled it as more of a severe case. "This was a complete surprise to me. I was totally asymptomatic."
J. Michael Smith, MD, Medical Director of The Christ Hospital's Cardiovascular and Mitral Valve Surgery Program, was recommended for a surgical consultation. At the appointment, he discussed with Ken the option to repair what he discovered was a ruptured mitral valve. "I told him that with a ruptured valve some people can be asymptomatic," said Dr. Smith. "But no matter how well you might feel, we do recommend a repair procedure, because the longer a rupture continues, the more your heart muscle gets damaged and then your heart is never the same."
Decades ago, Ken's father had a heart murmur and was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. He had bypass surgery at age 58 and then again at 74. This was in Ken's mind as he contemplated his situation. "My feeling was this may be hereditary, but I don't want this to ruin my good health. I want a long healthy life, and I'd rather take care of this now." Ken agreed that repairing the ruptured valve was the right thing to do. "But it was still crazy to get diagnosed with something like this," said Ken. "I'd never even spent one night in a hospital."
Robotic surgery is a conventional method to repair a leaky valve at The Christ Hospital, and Ken was a perfect candidate for it. Proficient robotic surgeons are relatively scarce in the country, but Dr. Smith, a preeminent world-recognized leader in the field, has performed about 3,000 robotic heart surgeries. "Overall, with robotics you have better outcomes. They are less invasive, which means less bleeding and faster recovery time for the patient." He explains that in traditional open-heart surgery, the months of recovery are not about the heart recovering from the surgery, but rather from the body's recovery from a sternum incision. "As we advance to do more surgical procedures robotically, we can provide better results for our patients."
Ken's procedure included the use of a newly designed mitral valve ring implant. "This improved ring has just a little bit of a different design that more accurately mimics the mitral valve function," said Smith. "It's better than all the other valves currently on the market." Ken has the distinction of being the first person in the world to have this advanced ring implanted in a robotic procedure and Dr. Smith of being the first surgeon in the world to do so.
Dr. Smith, a native of Middletown, became a part of The Christ Hospital Heart & Vascular Center team in January 2020. "When I was in medical school, my dad had heart care at The Christ Hospital, and the people in Middletown come here for their heart care," he said. "Throughout my career, my Mom would always say, 'I don't know why you don't work at Christ; they are the heart hospital.' I had worked here on and off over the years, and I always thought that if I had the opportunity, I would join this team."
For Ken, robotic surgery resulted in an excellent repair and a swift recovery. He was walking multiple laps in the hospital halls and was out of the hospital after five days, half the expected time for traditional open-heart surgery. "At home, I started walking my dog for 10 or 15 minutes a day, and now I'm up to four miles." His "first-in-man" surgical distinction coincided with the celebration of the 50th year since The Christ Hospital's first open-heart surgery in Cincinnati. Ken, now back in the swing of life, is back at work in the family business that his father started in 1970. "This is also our 50th anniversary. How about that?"
These two 50th anniversaries come in a year marked by the challenges of COVID-19, but as in any other year, the holiday season is a time to reflect with gratitude. Ken is thankful for restored health, for gaining back his strength, and, especially, for the hospital's caring medical staff. "What most impressed me about this experience was the care I received. It was so much better than I could ever expect," he said. "Dr. Smith is so knowledgeable and helpful. He's incredibly caring—very professional, but with a great bedside manner. I never felt rushed, and I knew I was in good hands."
The Christ Hospital Heart & Vascular Center is here for you and your loved ones, even during these unprecedented times, and remains a safe and trusted resource. Schedule an appointment online or learn more about getting a second opinion.