Video: New heart valve procedure a lifeline for Stoughton man

Sue Scheible

The experimental heart procedure came just in the nick of time for Joseph Riley. When doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital replaced the 88-year-old’s aortic valve last month, he could barely breathe due to congestive heart failure, had lost weight and spent weeks in the hospital.

“I’m breathing so good, I can’t believe it,” Riley said last week from his home in Stoughton. “They did a job on me and it came out great.”

On June 25, Riley became the first person in New England to undergo a new, minimally invasive heart procedure that is being tested at 25 medical centers in this country and five international sites. Mass. General is the only site in New England in the clinical trial, which will last another year and a half.

Riley, growing steadily weaker, was too sick to have traditional heart surgery, either by open heart or a minimally invasive method. He waited more than a year to be accepted into the non-surgical clinical trial.

“If the procedure hadn’t been approved, we didn’t think he’d be around much longer,” added his daughter Jean Cassidy, 58, of Bridgewater.

The experimental technique replaces heart valves by using a catheter to get into the heart through the blood vessels. The tissue valve is mounted on a balloon and threaded through the blood vessels from the leg into the heart, pushing aside the old, diseased valve. It is designed for patients with severe aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the valve that restricts blood flow.

The procedure is performed on a beating heart, without the need for cardiopulmonary bypass and its associated risks. Doctors hope it will help many more people who are too high risk for traditional heart surgery.

After he received his new heart valve, Riley was well enough five days later to move to Braemore Rehabilitation Center in Brockton and came home July 14. After his last checkup on July 21, Dr. Igor Palacios, director of the Heart Center’s Interventional Cardiology Program, said, “He’s doing fantastic.”

At home, Riley wears a white cap, given to him by his son Paul Riley of Halifax, with a Mass. General logo and proclaims, “I’m No. One.”

On July 22, he drove his car for the first time in months and last Wednesday, he called the company that supplies his oxygen tanks and “I told them to take it back, because I don’t need it.”

In the catheter procedure, the valve is mounted and crimped onto a balloon delivery system and then threaded through the blood vessels from the leg. Once in place, the balloon expands and the new valve is placed to open the patient’s own diseased heart valve.

His family had witnessed his steady decline in the past few months.

“It was frightening to see. He really went downhill after Christmas,” his daughter Jean said. “He was spending more time in the hospital, had no energy, was losing weight, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t breathe.

“Since he had the surgery, he looks awesome, like he’s five years younger. He has more color, pink cheeks and can walk without shuffling his feet.”

Riley worked in the shipping and receiving department at the former Cardinal Cushing Hospital in Brockton and then was a handyman at St. Susanna Church in Dedham from 1985 to 1999. His wife, Laura, died three years ago. Their other children are another daughter, Barbara Killgoar of Michigan, and two sons, Joseph of Sandwich and Kevin of East Bridgewater.

The Patriot Ledger