Retired U.S. Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Robert Epps has long been passionate about the military. Now he’s using that passion to help heart patients learn about a condition that could’ve killed him.
As a teenager, Robert learned he might have something wrong with his heart during a physical, but it was still a mystery until he was 18 and joined the Coast Guard. A boot camp physical showed a benign heart murmur.
Years later, a significant heart murmur could be heard with a stethoscope on his heart and on the carotid artery in his neck.
But Robert didn’t know it was urgent. He left town for a training mission.
As a Coast Guard petty officer, vigorous exercise is part of the job. Robert was a little concerned about fatigue and breathlessness, but he pushed himself harder. He was in denial that his heart valve — and his life — were in serious danger.
By the time he followed up with a cardiologist, Robert had been getting increasingly tired and sometimes he heard his heart pounding when he laid down to rest. Tests showed he had an aortic aneurysm, a leaky aortic valve (called aortic regurgitation) and a dilated left ventricle. As a result, Robert’s heart had become enlarged. “At times, it felt like a balloon was expanding through my ribs,” he said. “It was so much pressure.”
Robert underwent open-heart surgery to replace his aortic valve with a mechanical heart valve. His recovery included cardiac rehabilitation, medication and lifestyle modifications. He dropped contact sports and started watching his intake of vitamin K, which can interfere with blood-thinning medications called anticoagulants.
Robert later learned he had a second problem called an aortic dissection and has since had two more major surgeries. An aortic dissection is a separation of the inner and outer lining of the aorta. Blood pushes between those layers, causing circulation problems. Hear Robert describe his frightening experience and how he wants everyone to be aware of the symptoms of aortic dissection:
A voice for the cause
When Robert researched his condition, he realized that many people in his shoes never live to tell about it. He became a patient advocate for aortic health and founded the National Organization for Aortic Awareness(link opens in new window). A passionate speaker and hospital volunteer, Robert conducts seminars to teach people about their heart health and visits patients facing open-heart surgery. As a former American Heart Association Heart Valve Patient Ambassador, Epps offered hope to other heart patients.
He has written a book, The Human Aorta: Your Super Highway of Life, with assistance from Baylor College of Medicine, and is a committee member of the Thoracic Aortic Disease Coalition. He and his wife, Miriam, have one son, Isaiah, and live in Virginia.