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Full Speed Ahead For 98-year-old WWII Navy Vet

Transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) is a game changer for Paul Kollmeyer

A member of the Greatest Generation has a great future, thanks to a life-changing heart valve replacement at Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute.

For 98-year-old World War II Navy veteran Paul Carroll Kollmeyer of Pottstown, it’s now full speed ahead.

“I think it was close to what you might call a miracle,” Kollmeyer says of his transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) procedure, performed in early November 2023 by Shailendra Singh, MD, Associate Director of Interventional Cardiology with the Heart and Vascular Institute. Kollmeyer is among the oldest patients to ever have the TAVR procedure at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

Did you know?

Aortic stenosis is present in over 2% of adults over 65, making it the most common valvular heart disease in the developed world.

Discharged to rehabilitation three days after his minimally invasive TAVR procedure, Kollmeyer no longer needs the supplemental oxygen that was once helping him breathe due to a severely narrowed aortic valve.

Anatomy of a heart problem

A former aerospace engineer born in a small Michigan city on Lake Erie, Kollmeyer became seriously ill in the summer of 2022 and was hospitalized in intensive care at Paoli Hospital. It was there his aortic valve problem was discovered as he fought pneumonia, septic shock from a urinary tract infection, Lyme disease and babesiosis, a tick-borne disease similar to Lyme disease. In November 2022, Kollmeyer was hospitalized again, this time for COVID-19.

“The prognosis was poor, but he said ‘I want to fight. Bring it on,’” says Kollmeyer’s daughter, Janet Wittenmyer, of his summer hospitalization.

His cardiologist at the time was hesitant to perform a valve replacement, says Wittenmyer, and a second opinion was sought from a Veterans Affairs doctor. A subsequent echocardiogram confirmed the severe aortic valve stenosis. That means Kollmeyer’s aortic valve, which keeps blood flowing from his heart’s left ventricle to his aorta, was narrowed and blood was not flowing normally. Dr. Singh says the valve was critically narrow and noted the lack of blood flow surely contributed to Kollmeyer’s shortness of breath.

Kollmeyer, whose aerospace work included structural analysis engineering for the re-entry division of the Apollo space program in the 1960s, was referred to heart surgeon Jeffrey Veluz, MD, with Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute.

“I think it was close to what you might call a miracle.” Paul Kollmeyer, TAVR patient

Dr. Veluz conferred with Dr. Singh. Both agreed Kollmeyer was not a candidate for open-heart surgery for a variety of reasons, and Dr. Singh agreed to explore the TAVR, in which the aortic valve is replaced using a catheter inserted into an artery in the groin area.

“It was explained to me and I thought it would be a good thing to do,” says Kollmeyer. His family, which includes five children, knew their dad wanted the chance to have a better quality of life. “We as a family would rather lose him on the table then have him live like this, on oxygen and only going from bed to chair,” says Wittenmyer, a part-time Lehigh Valley Health Network nurse.

Dr. Singh says Kollmeyer’s coronary arteries, in contrast to his aortic valve, were pristine, something he chalked up in large part to Kollmeyer’s strict and long-time organic diet. Dr. Singh says aside from the valve narrowing, Kollmeyer’s heart was working well.

Kollmeyer, who served on an escort aircraft carrier as a loader for 40mm anti-aircraft guns, said he was impressed by the Heart and Vascular Institute’s experience with the TAVR procedure. “I thought that counted for something, so I said let’s go, full speed ahead,” Kollmeyer says. Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute has performed nearly 1,700 TAVR procedures since it began offering the operation. The procedure was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2011.

“We completed comprehensive pre-operative testing to ensure TAVR was a viable option,” Dr. Singh says. “In certain cases, it is necessary to take a step back and spend extra time with the patient and family to ensure we’re all comfortable with the plan.” Kollmeyer and his entire family met with Dr. Singh to ensure thoughtful discussions were completed prior to making a final decision.

Dr. Singh says the decision to perform the TAVR on Kollmeyer was a complex one. “You need to figure out if you can have a positive impact without taking on overwhelming risk. In general, as we age, the risks may increase and the benefit of time decreases,” he says. “However, each case needs personal attention to ensure that we are helping someone the best we can.”

Successful procedure

The TAVR procedure went perfectly, Dr. Singh says. Kollmeyer has traded in his wheelchair for a walker and continues to live by himself, with some daytime assistance. He no longer takes medication to prevent fluid buildup in his body and he goes to cardiac rehabilitation twice a week near his home.

“I’m very thrilled to be able to help a gentleman like Paul,” Dr. Singh says. “We have helped him live with more quality and the ability to enjoy the things he likes to do. That’s important to him and it was important to me.” Dr. Singh says he and Kollmeyer developed a very strong bond Kollmeyer credited to their mutual academic background in engineering. Dr. Singh earned a dual degree in biomedical and chemical engineering prior to his journey into medicine.

Kollmeyer, a child of the Great Depression who was born when Calvin Coolidge was president, says faith, trust and a positive attitude played a role in his decision to move ahead with the TAVR procedure. “When you shake it down and sift it out, it’s the wonderful connection I have with my heavenly Father,” he says. “I wasn’t concerned or upset about it.”

When asked about the secret to living a long life, Kollmeyer says he follows the adage: “Don’t sweat the small stuff. And it’s all small stuff.”

“My advice is to get the load (stress and worry) off your shoulders. Everybody is carrying around a ton of bricks on their shoulders. That kind of weighs you down and makes it hard to enjoy life,” Kollmeyer says.

Every year since 2005, Kollmeyer, a grandfather of 16 and a great-grandfather of eight, has participated in the Pottstown Fourth of July parade where he wears his WWII Navy uniform. Even with his illness in 2022, he hasn’t missed a year. The heart care expertise at Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute will have him in the lineup again this year.

Kollmeyer, an avid chess player, has seen a lot in his 98 years and plans to see a lot more. “I tell everybody I’m looking to go beyond 150, because I need that much time to get it all done,” he laughs.

Transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR)

Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR)

If you have a diseased aortic valve, you may qualify for this minimally invasive approach to replace the valve without a large incision.

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