Racing Ahead with On-X
Josh Dunn was filled with excitement as he caught a glimpse of his wife Gwen just after she had finished the New York City Marathon. After all, Gwen, and her niece Lauren, were running the race on behalf of Josh, all to raise funds and awareness for aortic health.
“Gwen is an amazing woman,” Josh said. “She’s running her third marathon which is unbelievable. She was never a runner before a few years ago, and we had an opportunity to run a marathon to raise money for aortic health, to make people aware who are going through a lot of what I already went through. So, she decided to be my champion, and she’s run for three years now as my surrogate in the New York City Marathon. I don’t even have the words to tell you how amazing I think she is for doing that.”
Josh’s family has provided a strong support system throughout his heart valve replacement journey. For Josh, this started with a diagnosis of a congenital bicuspid aortic valve and dissected aortic root in 2002, which led to valve replacement surgery. Only 8 years later, the tissue valve that he received began failing, necessitating another valve replacement surgery.
This time around, Josh chose the On-X Aortic Valve.
A Failed Tissue Valve Replacement Leads to Big Choices
Josh is a financial advisor in Connecticut, and also works as partner in a film company. Between work and family, he lives an extremely active life.
“Well, first and foremost, I’m a dad. So, a lot of my time is occupied by my kids,” Josh said. “I’ve coached soccer, I’ve been coaching baseball for a lot of years and also. I really enjoy music, so I go see a lot of live music whenever I can. That’s definitely a big hobby of mine. I enjoy the outdoors – hiking, swimming. I also play the guitar, but not well.”
Prior to a checkup in 2002, Josh had never experienced any symptoms related to his heart condition.
“I had absolutely no symptoms whatsoever; I never knew that I had a heart issue or a heart condition. I had been going to the doctor regularly and getting checkups and I had been fine. But apparently, I was diagnosed with my bicuspid aortic valve and dissected aortic root and was told that it was a congenital defect. So, I’d had this [for] my entire life up until that point, and I never knew about it.”
Josh was told that he would need aortic valve and root replacement surgery, and at that time, his doctor recommended a tissue valve. Josh went with his doctor’s recommendation and had the tissue valve implanted. In the years following his valve replacement, Josh continued regular checkups with his cardiologist. After only eight years, the cardiologist discovered his tissue valve replacement was beginning to fail.
“When I found out that my first [tissue] valve replacement [was failing] several years later, I was in complete shock,” Josh said. “It was almost ironic. After I got the diagnosis that my valve was starting to leak and fail, I started to get the same light headedness that I had experienced before, some cold sweats and very similar symptoms that I had had previous to my first surgery.”
“So, I had some choices to make leading up to my second surgery which was in 2012.”
Advocating for His Own Health and a Better Outcome: Choosing On-X
This time, Josh was determined to learn as much as he could about his options and what would be the best decision for him.
“I wanted to be as proactive about my care as possible going forward,” Josh said. “I wanted to make the best decision I could in terms of how to proceed, where to have the surgery, what doctor should do the surgery, what types of devices should be used, things of that nature.”
He first met with a surgeon in Boston, where he had his first heart valve replacement surgery, who recommended a St. Jude Medical™ mechanical heart valve.
“I decided I was going to seek outside opinions and get a second medical opinion,” he said. “So, doing research I found that the major heart centers in the U.S. were Boston, Cleveland and Houston.”
Josh met with another doctor at the Cleveland Clinic and got a third opinion from a doctor in Houston. Both recommended a mechanical valve, and both suggested the On-X Aortic Valve.
“The reason both doctors recommended that I replace my valve with the mechanical valve was that having a mechanical valve was going to give me the best chance of not needing to have surgery again for the rest of my life [due to his valve wearing out],” Josh said. “The valve itself will probably last five of my lifetimes.”
Josh also did his own research on mechanical valves, and was impressed with the information he discovered about On-X Aortic Valves.
“I really liked the On-X [Aortic] Valve. And the reason I like the On-X [Aortic] Valve more than any other valve, at that time, and I know it still holds true today, the [pyrolytic] carbon material [of the On-X Aortic Valve] was state of the art. And I read a lot about the blood flow over the valve and the leaflets of the valve opening and closing. And I felt that I would rather be on the cutting edge of science and have that implanted in me… So, I went with the doctor’s advice, and [chose] the On-X [Aortic] Valve.”
Josh was also surprised that his opinion was taken into account as to what type of valve he would receive. Having done his own research, he knew which valve he wanted, and his doctor agreed with him.
“As for the valve itself, I would say it seems like doctors themselves had preferences as to which valves they would use. Upon doing my own research, ultimately, the decision was mine. Fortunately, the doctor in Cleveland agreed that the On-X [Aortic] Valve was the best choice for me, so we agreed on the recommendation. But, had I been insistent that we choose or use another valve, I could have done that. So, the choice is yours – or the choice was mine at that time as to what I wanted or had implanted in me.”
Josh stresses the importance of making an informed decision and doing as much research as possible.
“You’ve been given one life. That’s your body. You need to be an advocate for yourself. That’s the way it is right now, you need to be a strong advocate for yourself, it’s extremely, extremely important.”
Don’t Go It Alone: Support from Family and Friends is Key
Josh wasn’t going through his heart valve replacement journey alone. He found it very helpful to have an active support system which included family, friends and medical professionals. Having his family’s involvement in decisions regarding his heart valve replacement benefitted all of them, not just him.
“The decision for me to have heart surgery affects everybody in the family, not just me,” he said. “I had a great support system in my family and I had parents, brothers, spouse, kids. Everyone stepped up.
“My family was involved with every medical decision that I made throughout this entire process. They were very proactive. They helped me with researching valves. If they had questions they would actually email the doctors themselves. They were almost too proactive on my behalf. So, they were definitely involved with my decision, this entire process for me. I did not feel like I had to go through anything alone. Every decision, every choice I made, was made with my family in mind.”
Overcoming Misgivings and Misperceptions about Blood Thinner
Josh says if he was able to do his first surgery over, he would have gone with a mechanical valve, but he was influenced by misperceptions he had about anticoagulants, also referred to as blood thinners.
“My biggest fear at that time was having to go on a blood thinner and how that would change my life at such a young age. As it turned out, I ended up needing to go on a blood thinner with the [tissue] valve still, at a very, very young age – only at 43 years old. If I had to do it all over again I would opt for the mechanical valve and save the issues and complications and trauma that arise from having to have a second heart surgery all over again.”
“Now that I’m on a blood thinner, it really has not affected by day to day routine or changed my life that much at all. The fears that I had really weren’t based on fact. There’s no activity that I did before that I cannot do now or do not do. I exercise the same way, I hike the same way I always hiked, I coach and participate in sports the same way that I always have in the past.”
“My diet has changed a little bit. When you’re on a blood thinner, you just have to try to be a little consistent in what you eat when it comes to the green vegetables, spinach, broccoli, kale, things of that nature.”
“Being on a blood thinner has not slowed me down at all, [and] is not that big of a deal.”
Active and Involved: Advocating for Others
Josh’s experiences with heart valve disease, as well as with aortic dissection, led him and his family to work with The John Ritter Foundation to help educate people about heart health.
“I was fortunate. So, I almost feel like it’s my mission to try to educate and help other people who are out there so, no family has to suffer the loss of a loved one due to aortic disease and anything I can do to help that, I’m determined to do it.”
Josh felt a special connection with the actor John Ritter, who died from an acute aortic dissection. The John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health was founded by John’s widow, Amy Yasbeck, and their family and is focused on thoracic aortic disease education, support, and research.
“Unfortunately, when I got diagnosed with a bicuspid aortic valve and a dissected aortic root, I had never even heard of people having a dissected aortic root,” Josh said.
Josh and Gwen reached out to the organization and asked what they could do to help. He was told that they raise funds every year by having a team run in the New York City Marathon. Gwen immediately decided that she would run as a surrogate for her husband.
“I said, ‘Gwen, you’ve never run a marathon before in your life. She said, ‘I’m going to do it for you,’ and she just set her mind on it. Ten minutes later she was googling how to train for a marathon and said, ‘I’m doing it!’ And here we are years later and Gwen is running her third New York City Marathon on my behalf. She’s great – she’s an amazing woman and we couldn’t be prouder to be associated with The John Ritter Foundation.”
Josh also credits the On-X Aortic Valve he received for allowing him to live a full and active life, to advocate for heart valve disease, and to spend valuable time with his family.
“Knowing what I know now, if I could go back in time, I would definitely still choose the On-X [Aortic] Valve. I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
“I just highly recommend to people: be your own advocate, do your research, rely on others to help. It’s difficult to go through any of this alone. But it was an easy decision for me and the On-X [Aortic] Valve was clearly the way to go.”
On-X Life Technologies, Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary of CryoLife, Inc. The On-X Prosthetic Heart Valves are manufactured by On-X Life Technologies, Inc. CryoLife, the snowflake design, Life Restoring Technologies, and On-X are registered trademarks owned by CryoLife, Inc. or its subsidiaries. All other registered trademarks are owned by their respective owners. © 2018 CryoLife, Inc. All rights reserved.