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For this patient from Texas, heart surgery in Gainesville was the perfect fit
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Alan, front, and Karen Threlkeld talk about the procedure that extended Alan's life on Wednesday, July 31, at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. - photo by Nick Bowman

For Alan and Karen Threlkeld, the drive from their home in San Angelo, Texas, to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville was “1,100 miles of worry.”

But their ride back will be a little less stressful, after Alan’s successful heart valve replacement on July 25.

“You don’t know what the outcome is going to be (beforehand), but it’s going to be such a relief to go home,” Karen Threlkeld said.

Alan is recovering well and will soon be making that long drive back to western Texas.

“Maybe I don’t feel like quite a new man yet, but I know I am,” Alan Threlkeld, 78, said Wednesday.

While Gainesville may have been new to them, Alan’s doctor was a familiar face—Dr. Alan Wolfe had performed his heart transplant in 1997 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta.

“It’s almost like it was meant to be,” Alan Threlkeld said.

The Threlkelds had also approached the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic about performing the surgery but were declined due to the risk. Then, they reached out to NGMC.

“It kind of was three is the charm,” Karen Threlkeld said.

While it was initially frustrating trying to find a doctor who would do the procedure, the couple said that the long search ended up being a blessing in disguise.

 “I’m just so happy it turned out the way it did. … I’m grateful that Dr. Wolfe was able to help me out again,” Alan Threlkeld said. “I’d call it a life-saving gem. I don’t know if I could have found anybody better.”

Wolfe said that while the surgery was risky, it was necessary.

“We know there’s a benefit, but there’s a pretty high risk as well,” Wolfe said. “… It’s easy to give the patient the recommendation to do nothing, as opposed to doing something that might kill them.”

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Dr. Alan Wolfe talks about the heart surgery he recently performed on a Alan Threlkeld, who was a patient of Wolfe’s about 20 years ago when Wolfe performed a heart transplant for the man in Atlanta. - photo by Nick Bowman

But Threlkeld’s heart is already beating the odds. Wolfe said the five-year survival rate for heart transplants is about 60%, and the 10-year survival rate for patients Threlkeld’s age is usually no more than 20%.

“I had a vested interest in seeing him do well because I put that heart into him, and I was amazed that the heart was still working as well as it is 22 years later,” Wolfe said.

Threlkeld spent a week undergoing tests to make sure he was ready for the valve replacement surgery.

The July 25 procedure was his fourth heart surgery. After a heart attack and a car accident that resulted in neck fractures, he needed a heart transplant. Doctors have to make sure the body is accepting a heart transplant by performing biopsies, but Threlkeld’s tri-cuspid valve was damaged as a result of those biopsies.

The valve was leaking, putting strain on his heart and restricting blood flow, sending the flow backward. The Threlkelds learned the issue needed to be addressed quickly.

“We didn’t know how long that window was,” Karen Threlkeld said. “It could be months. It could be years. We knew we needed it to be done.”

Wolfe said that heart surgeries are more difficult if the patient has previously had a similar procedure.

“If you do a second heart operation, often there is very little remaining enveloping tissue that sits around the heart to serve as a barrier between the chest wall and the heart itself,” Wolfe said. “If you have to go back in, it’s really two operations in one. The first operation is just to get the heart exposed safely. The second operation is to fix whatever you came to fix.”

Wolfe said that even though the Threlkelds traveled a long way for treatment, their case is a testament to the fact that people in Northeast Georgia shouldn’t have to make that trip for cardiac care.

“Nobody wants to go to Atlanta because they don’t want to deal with the traffic. … They can get state-of-the-art surgery here. They don’t have to go away for it,” Wolfe said.

As for Alan Threlkeld, he’s looking forward to returning home to life as usual and already feels a little better.

“I normally get on the treadmill several times a week,” he said. “I try to stay in as good shape as I can, but I know I’m limited, too, because of that backward blood flow. But I can tell the difference now.”

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