Celebrating heart health on Valentine's Day

February 14, 2012 7:50:53 PM PST
Valentine's Day is a day we celebrate love and affairs of the heart. It is also a good time to think about the health of your heart.

No doubt, you have seen a few hearts on this Valentine's Day and maybe even received one from somebody special. For cardiologists, however, it is just like any other day of dealing with hearts broken in a literal sense.

Luke Fotu is 11-months-old and to his mother's relief, he was blessed with good health on his first Valentine's Day. If a child and parents are lucky, life will always be that way. Then again, life can hold surprises. Someday, Brennan Murphy's parents will tell him about the heart surgery that probably saved his life. It is one of those modern miracles we almost take for granted, but Peter Barnett was a baby in a different time.

"I probably wouldn't be here today," he said when asked what if he were born 10 years earlier. Back in the 1950s, Barnett was what they called a "Blue Baby." "Blue face, blue fingernails, short of breath... That's the way my parents saw me as an infant," he explained.

At UCSF Medical Center, Dr. Elyse Foster sees and can treat such congenital cases almost routinely now. But in the 1950s, Barnett's condition required revolutionary surgery. Without it, he would never have survived childhood. "Well, I think just hearing that made me think life was precious. I was living on borrowed time," he said.

On the assumption he had been cured, Barnett lived life to the fullest. He climbed mountains, sought out experiences, began a family, and became a mortgage broker. But that assumption about his health turned out to be wrong. "These patients are often left with a leaky heart valve," Foster says. "The original surgery that they had, well, it fixed the problem that caused them to be blue, but left them with a new problem."

15 years ago, Barnett, with a young son and baby on the way, and having not seen a cardiologist in years, went into cardiac arrest. The second open heart surgery replaced a valve and extended his life. The date will always be symbolic. "February 14th, 1997, Valentine's Day," he said.

It is not a day of Hallmark hearts and flowers, not for Peter Barnett. "I see a heart that's pumping, that's got four chambers putting blood out, and makes the body go," he told ABC7. Maybe that is just one of the strange lessons in life, a metaphorical juxtaposition appreciated by parents, and a few grown-ups, too.

"I think it'll have a whole new meaning for us, for sure," Brennan Murphy's mom said referring to Valentine's Day. "It's what I think romance should be all about, which is life and loving life with those around you," Barnett said.


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