Quadruple bypass, valve replacement were just the first leg of survivor's health journey

Tom Broussard has endured nearly a decade of health crises and now finds purpose in being an American Heart Association Heart Valve Ambassador.
After nearly a decade of health crises, Tom Broussard now finds purpose in being an American Heart Association Heart Valve Ambassador.

Tom Broussard's journey to a healthy recovery has taken him over 10,000 miles — and counting.

As he consults the walking log he started in October 2011, he can pinpoint the places his recovery took turns along the way.

"It's like rings on a tree that show drought or fires, but on mine you can see where I had my stroke, and then my heart valve replacement," said Broussard, who lives in St. Augustine, Florida. "You realize you're not just one thing; you are always on a continuum of health."

After nearly a decade of health crises — including quadruple bypass surgery, two valve replacements, an ischemic stroke and renal failure — Broussard has a new sense of purpose: As an American Heart Association Heart Valve Ambassador, he helps others learn about their health through his struggles and success.

He'd always considered himself healthy, maintaining his weight and exercising regularly. His doctors warned him that his cholesterol and blood pressure were elevated but didn't prescribe medication.

In 2011, Broussard, then 59, felt chest pressure while walking. That led to the quadruple bypass and replacement of his aortic valve, which had narrowed. He knew things were serious but felt lucky he hadn't suffered the same fate as his dad, who died of a heart attack at age 49.

"When I had my heart surgery, I thought, 'You get the bypass and a new valve and you're fixed' and that I just could go on living," he said.

Three months later he had the stroke. Left with aphasia, a language disorder that affects the ability to communicate, Broussard spent 11 months relearning how to read, write and speak.

New health struggles followed, including two transient ischemic attacks, or "mini-strokes," and renal failure that cost him a kidney. Broussard poured his energy into studying his stroke recovery and sharing his story with others grappling with aphasia.

But in July 2017, his focus turned sharply back to his heart. Broussard began to have difficulty breathing and worried he had pneumonia or bronchitis.

"I had to sleep sitting up because I felt like I was drowning," he said. "I knew I was in trouble but had no idea what it could be."

Broussard consulted his doctor and twice visited an urgent care clinic. He was taken off one medication suspected of causing a bad reaction, then treated for pneumonia. Nothing helped.

Frustrated, he drove himself to a hospital emergency room, where testing showed his heart valve had failed and would need to be replaced. The difficulty breathing was caused by fluid collecting in his lungs, putting him at risk of heart failure.

He felt helpless. It had never occurred to him that the valve replacement he'd had six years earlier could be at risk of failure.

"I was mad at myself at being ignorant, and frustrated that even the doctors hadn't thought it was my heart," he said.

Shortness of breath is one symptom of heart valve disease, although many other conditions can cause that, too. Other symptoms include chest pain, a feeling that the heart is racing or skipping, lightheadedness, and swelling in the feet, ankles or abdomen. But some people with heart valve disease have no symptoms, or very subtle ones.

This time, instead of open-heart surgery, Broussard had a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR, a minimally invasive procedure that wedges a replacement valve into the aortic valve's place through a thin tube, or catheter. After his surgery, Broussard expanded his focus to heart health, including how to control risk factors.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, he would exercise at the gym each day to avoid Florida's heat and humidity. Now he walks outside early each morning, when the temperature is cooler, but has reduced his mileage to avoid getting overly fatigued. He's learned over the years that environmental conditions — too hot, too cold or high altitudes — can affect his health, and he adjusts where he can to avoid frustration.

Broussard said sharing his story has been healing. "It helps me to share these stories and help others see that there are people like them, and they can get through this."