Robotic mitral valve surgery quells health fears for father of three

Kevin Agnew

Kevin Agnew rock climbing

The mountains at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming extend for 40 miles and reach an elevation of nearly 14,000 feet. In 2017, Kevin Agnew, 39, ascended these peaks, crossing one more athletic venture off his to-do list before competing in a triathlon later that same year.

In good practice, the athlete also gets yearly physicals. Unexpectedly, his next visit with a primary care physician revealed his heart was beating irregularly.

“They said, 'You need to go see a cardiologist,' and the cardiologist then recommended that I see a cardiac surgeon," Agnew said.

Agnew, a resident of Evanston, Ill. and the father of three young children, was diagnosed with a mitral valve prolapse, a condition that was causing the valve to leak significantly back into the left upper chamber of the heart. This condition called mitral regurgitation (MR) can cause the heart to overfill with fluid and develop congestion in the lungs. Despite showing no physical symptoms, Agnew could have gone into heart failure by leaving his MR untreated. People who suffer from this cardiac condition can be genetically predisposed to it.

Upon learning about his condition, Agnew decided to do his research before committing to any procedure.

"I was scared for my family," he said. "At the time, I was a father of two kids under 5 with one on the way. We knew I would have to get surgery at some point, so we decided as a family to get it done now."

The traditional option Agnew initially found would require cracking his chest open through a long incision. Unsatisfied with this approach, he decided to seek a second opinion with Husam Balkhy, MD, director of minimally invasive and robotic cardiac surgery at UChicago Medicine. A leading cardiac surgeon, Balkhy is widely recognized as a pioneer for robotic cardiac surgery, a minimally invasive surgical approach that can reduce recovery time and the risk of infection after surgery. 

"In a traditional manner, I wouldn't have been able to pick up my kids for several weeks, if not months, because I would be recovering from that broken sternum," Agnew said. "Dr. Balkhy said because of the way he does the surgery, the recovery time would be a lot less."

Agnew's successful surgery lasted about four hours. It left him with incisions less than 2 centimeters in length, and he went home the next day.

"If someone had a traditional open heart surgery, they would go home five days after the surgery," Balkhy explained. "In our hospital, when we do robotic surgery, they go home one to two days after the operation. He was running and exercising within a week after the surgery. "

The first night after surgery is not an easy climb for anyone, but Agnew recalled Balkhy and his team doing their best to make him comfortable, including checking on him frequently and allowing his pregnant wife to sleep next to him. 

He stressed that the humanity and abilities of the entire care team were second-to-none. "I felt like a person and not a number," Agnew said. "He was very sensitive to the human dynamic and empathetic, which was comforting before and after my procedure. It was refreshing. I am thankful to Balkhy and his team."

A week after his robotic heart surgery, Agnew was back traversing the outdoors. "I took a mile-long hike out in the woods," he said. "I was cooking dinner for my kids. I was a little sore, but other than that pretty grateful."

Husam Balkhy MD

Husam Balkhy, MD

Husam H. Balkhy, MD, is a pioneer in the field of minimally invasive and robotic cardiac surgery. He specializes in the treatment of coronary artery disease, heart valve disorders, atrial fibrillation and other cardiac diseases, using robotic and less invasive techniques in order to reduce pain, disability, and recovery time.

Learn about Dr. Balkhy