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Don's story

Don Swarce with his wood carvingChronic shortness of breath and fatigue stopped Don Swarce from doing what he loved—at age 72, he thought he was just getting old. But now, thanks to Tufts Medical Center, his variety of heart issues are under control and both symptoms are gone. He has a new lease on life.  

November 1, 2016, doing carpentry work on a friend’s porch, Don recalls, his friend suddenly looked at him funny, and asked, “Are you ok?” 

“I have a little pain in my upper chest,” Don told him. “It feels like bronchitis.” The pain didn’t subside, so the next day—Wednesday—his PCP examined him, said he probably had just a little congestion, and prescribed a Z-Pak to take for a few days. 

That Saturday night, Don couldn’t sleep. When he laid down, he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t even sit in a chair and fall asleep. By 2 a.m., all breathing had become incredibly difficult. His wife got dressed, and told him, “I’m going to Boston. You can either come with me or wait until the ambulance comes.” 

Together, they drove straight to Tufts MC (as Don felt their care had been excellent when he developed a blood disorder three years earlier). After a quick evaluation in the ER, the doctor said Don had experienced a heart attack four or five days earlier—the day he worked on the porch. 

Procedure One: Stent

The medical team kept Don overnight and Sunday morning, examined him via cardiac catheterization (inserting a thin, hollow tube into a large blood vessel leading to his heart). They discovered one artery was 100% open, but the other was 86% closed. They recommended implanting a stent in that severely blocked artery to improve blood flow, completed the procedure hours later, and within a few days—breathing problems gone—sent Don home. 

Reflecting as he recovered, Don realized his issues had been building in the few months leading up to his heart attack. “I’ve always loved yard work,” he says. “Our backyard slopes about four feet lower than the ground level at our house. Going downhill, I was fine but coming back up, I’d be out of breath. I should have known something was wrong then. Especially considering that I couldn’t even take a shower without feeling winded.” 

Procedure Two: ICD

Unfortunately, Don’s breathing issues returned just before Thanksgiving, so back to Tufts MC’s ER he went. It turned out his heart rate was alternately plummeting and skyrocketing, and his medical team, led by Dr. Munther Homoud, Co-Director of the New England Cardiac Arrhythmia Center, recommended implanting a combination pacemaker (to maintain normal heart rhythm) and defibrillator (to shock his heart back into rhythm as needed). They operated November 28, 2016, and after another few days, again, Don went home. 

Back at Tufts MC for a follow-up December 13, while walking from one room to another with the doctor, suddenly Don lost his breath. Because the doctor saw it happen, she was able to examine him immediately, diagnose him with atrial fibrillation or AFib (an irregular heartbeat), and reconfirm his decade-old leaky mitral valve.    

The leak, or regurgitation, was getting worse, but not so much that the valve needed replacement. That’s when Dr. James Udelson, Chief of the Division of Cardiology, told Don about the MitraClip—an innovative, tiny clip attached to the leaky mitral valve, allowing it to close more completely; helping restore normal blood flow through the heart. 

At the time, though it had been used over 30,000 times worldwide (today that number is 50,000 and climbing), it was only available through a clinical trial, but he said Don would likely qualify. “I was definitely interested in anything to restore my health, and as I trusted Tufts MC implicitly,” says Don, “I agreed to go through the necessary steps over the next few months”—a new medication, an examination and interview by Dr. Navin Kapur, Executive Director of the Cardiovascular Center for Research and Innovation, and an application submission and review process—to determine qualification. 

Procedure Three: MitraClip

The MitraClip is the size of a quarterDon was ultimately approved, and underwent his MitraClip procedure April 26, 2017. “I went in about 8am and woke close to midnight with tubes down my throat and an IV in my neck and arm. My medical team was perfect. I was sent home within three days—the recovery wasn’t bad at all,” he recalls. 

Before the MitraClip, while walking the length of a football field, “I’d suddenly lose my breath and have to squat down for a minute and a half to recover,” Don says. “Immediately after the Clip, that recovery time catching my breath dropped to just 15 seconds, and over the next few months, the need to catch my breath was less and less. The longer the MitraClip is in, the better it works.”


“By early November 2017—a week after my six-month follow-up with Dr. Udelson,” he continues, “those loss-of-breath episodes completely stopped.” Don has been able to return to activities he always cherished without a worry. He is again working in the yard, and woodworking—his lifelong hobby. 

This spring, Don built a door frame, installed a door, and completed its finish work with his son-in-law. He’s made several wooden toy trains for my grandsons and nephews. “I’m so happy,” he says. “I owe it all to the outstanding team at Tufts MC. From doctors to nurses to technicians…at every level, I’ve been delighted by their care, kindness, attention to detail, and the time they spent with me. I’m a Tufts MC patient for life.”