Skills of a Tar Heel, Luck of the Irish

In May, a faulty heart valve nearly put an end to Jim Weber. But after receiving a transcatheter aortic valve replacement at UNC Medical Center, Weber says he feels like he’s been gifted with years he didn’t have before. A lifelong Notre Dame fan, Weber joined Matt Cavender, the doctor who performed the valve replacement, as the Fighting Irish faced the Tar Heels at Kenan Stadium.

Skills of a Tar Heel, Luck of the Irish click to enlarge Dr. Cavender with Jim Weber at Kenan Stadium (photo by Jon Gardiner, UNC-Chapel Hill)

Jim Weber had an aortic valve replaced in 2009. This past spring Weber’s doctors discovered that the valve was leaking and needed to be replaced again.

His doctors had hoped to wait until he was somewhat healthy before replacing the valve, but Weber’s health had been on the decline for months. “I had no appetite. I couldn’t sleep. In the period between Thanksgiving and April of this year, I lost 50 pounds,” Weber recalls.

One night in May, Weber, who lives in Lexington, North Carolina, had to be rushed to High Point Regional Hospital in an ambulance because his condition had deteriorated to the point that his organs had begun to shut down. It wasn’t long before doctors at the High Point Hospital transferred him to UNC Medical Center.

By the time he arrived in Chapel Hill, Weber had lost consciousness. Matt Cavender, MD, MPH, one of the doctors on the team who performed Weber’s valve replacement, described Weber’s condition on arrival. “He was in shock, could not respond to us, and had kidney failure. Once he arrived at UNC, I worked with my colleagues, John Vavalle and Tommy Caranasos, to come up with a plan to replace his valve. We felt that it was the only way he would be able to survive. The doctors and nurses in our cardiac intensive care unit and our cath lab staff were able to help us implement and execute that plan and we are thrilled to see how well Mr. Weber has done.”

Transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) is a minimally invasive valve replacement procedure that is often ideal for patients who may be too ill for open heart surgery.

After his TAVR, Weber spent a week in recovery at the Medical Center.

“I could not have asked for better care,” he says. “It wasn’t just that everyone was positive and helpful, it felt like how I was doing was important to them.”

Weber’s recovery has been remarkable. He spends his free time these days outside as much as he can. He walks for an hour a day and works in his yard often.

Weber has had to make a few changes, including a low-salt diet – something, he joked, that he “wouldn’t wish on an enemy” – but otherwise he says he is feeling better than he has in years.

“Dr. Cavender and his crew gave me time that I didn’t have before,” says Weber. “I feel like I was gifted with years to live and they’ve added quality to my life also. A year ago I couldn’t have done the things that I do now.”

That includes cheering on Notre Dame’s football team. Weber grew up in Indiana and has been a lifelong fan.

“When I was a kid I used to believe that if you were good, when you died you got to go to Notre Dame.”

Dr. Cavender knew that Weber was a fan, so when the Fighting Irish were scheduled to face the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, he invited Weber and his family to Kenan Stadium to have lunch at the Carolina Club and watch the game. In his pocket, Mr. Weber carried the ticket from the last time he watched UNC play Notre Dame, in 1971 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Weber says that he could not be happier with the care he received at the Medical Center and that he felt blessed to have them so close, but that as far as the action on the gridiron, he was sticking with his team.

 “If Dr. Cavender were a quarterback at UNC I would definitely root for him. But since he’s not, I had to root for my Irish.”

Learn more about the TAVR program at http://www.med.unc.edu/medicine/cardiology/uncheartvalve.

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