Tick Tock The Clock Is Ticking

Leon Hammack
B-757 cockpit somewhere over the Pacific between LAX and HNL.

The FAA grounded me for the duration of their investigation, which took about three and a half weeks to finish. So I was released back to flight status by the FAA thereafter, around the second week in June.

I returned to the air on the last week of June. At the end of that trip I noticed that my heart was beating weirdly, irregularly, or it was doing something that I had never noticed before.

When I returned to my house in Yuma, AZ, I made a phone call to my cardiologist, Dr. John Nelson in Fresno, CA, on Friday July 2, 2010. I expressed to him the feeling that I was having in my chest. He asked me if I could be in his office Monday morning? I acknowledged that I can easily be in his office on Monday morning. The appointment was scheduled and set in stone for 8 am.

My cardiologist decided that I needed to wear a heart monitor for 48 hours so that he could see, in more detail, what the heck was going on with my heart. So at the end of the 48 hours he took the heart monitor off, reviewed that data, and got me an appointment with an electro-physiologist, Dr. Koi Le. As Dr. Le explained to me, even though he was a cardiologist, his specialty and training was in electro-physiology. He continued to explain that my cardiologist is like a plumber and he, Dr. Le, is the electrician!

To make a long story short, once. again, by the end of the week, Friday specifically, I was having a procedure known as a Cardiac Ablation. For those who may not be totally familiar with that medical procedure, you might want to check out that link and read my five part rendition of what it was like to go through that, along with the overnight hospital stay. You may find this informative and I hope entertaining!

After recovering from the Cardiac Ablation and notifying the FAA of that procedure, my airline flying career came to a grinding halt. My flying career dropped like a prom dress. The FAA, in its infinite wisdom, revoked my medical certificate rendering my aviation career finished effective July 9, 2010. Even though your FAA pilot’s license has no expiration date, it is rendered invalid when you do not have a valid medical certificate to accompany it! That is the lone catch.

One of the outcomes from the cardiac ablation was that Dr. Le got an up close and personal look at my bicuspid aortic valve. It was at that point that there was definitive proof that, in time, I will be having to have my aortic valve replaced at some date in the future. Additionally, this event signaled my cardiologist that he needed to come up a plan to monitor the degradation of my aortic valve.

For the next five years my cardiologist put me on a schedule to have echocardiograms every six months in order to keep a close look at my aortic valve. Everything seemed to flow nicely for the next five years. In June of 2015 the echocardiogram results began to show that my aortic valve and the left ventricle might possibly be beginning to show signs of stress and change. My cardiologist decided that I need to have my second angiogram so that there can be another “up close and personal” look at the ol aortic valve.

After reviewing the results of that angiogram my cardiologist said that I needed to look into securing a thoracic surgeon’s opinion on my status. With that tidbit of advice I began my homework via the internet.

Now that I was living in Yuma, AZ I decided that I need to research thoracic surgeons at Scripps in San Diego, a mere three hour drive from Yuma vs. an 8 1/2 hour drive to Fresno! I began my in depth research looking for the best thoracic surgeon available associated with the Scripps system. After much scrounging, and with a suggestion list from my cardiologist, Dr. John J. (Jeff) Tyner was my overwhelming choice.

It took about 2-3 weeks to get on Dr. Tyner’s schedule to have a consult. Prior to the office visit I had to forward most of my medical records from my cardiologist and from the doctor that performed both of my angiograms, as well as my last two echocardiograms.

Making the three hour drive to San Diego gave me ample time to ponder what was to come after the doctor visit. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to undergo aortic valve replacement soon after this visit. To say that I was nervous. is a gross understatement! Once I was ushered into the room awaiting my introduction to Dr. Jeff Tyner, listen to his analysis of my case, and get some of my questions answered the nerves went supersonic!

Mayday, Mayday!

When Dr. Tyner entered the room, he introduced himself, engaged me, and then went over all of my records that was at his disposal, I realized that I couldn’t have selected a more professional, a more empathetic, and top-notched thoracic surgeon than Dr. Jeff Tyner! I am beginning to feel more assured.

After reviewing all of my records and medical data, Dr. Tyner told me that open heart surgery was not indicated at this particular time. However, it is definitely in the near future. If the criteria for replacing my aortic vale was solely based on the severity of the murmur/regurgitation/leak, then he would be doing my surgery on the following day! But he said that the severity of the leak is not the sole criteria to require this surgery. He added that as long as the walls of the heart have not started to show stress, then he thinks that we can buy some more time! Whew! That took a lot off of my mind!

So back I go to Yuma with a reprieve!

For the next four years everything seemed to flow smoothly, or so I thought!

Stay tuned the saga will continue.


I Have A Broken Heart, No Really!


It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times! Isn’t that how The Tale of Two Cities begins? Well it is very apropos in my tale as well.

It was the Spring of 2006, I was 55 years old, when my life took a hard left turn, quite unexpectedly. I was taking my bi-annual FAA physical when the doctor was listening to my heart and suddenly looked up at me and asked me a question, that appeared quite out of the blue!

The doctor asked me “how long have you had this heart murmur?” I was completely stunned by his question. My eloquent retort to the doctor went something like this. “What murmur, I don’t have no stinkin’ murmur”!

The doctor then sat down beside me and explained what a heart murmur was and that, yes indeed, you do have a heart murmur. He then explained to me what to listen for through his stethoscope as he positioned that on my ears and over my heart.

I heard just exactly what he had heard! I did in fact have a murmur at 55 years old. How could that be? How could this just now show up? I have physicals yearly for twenty years, and for the last ten years a physical every six months.

In addition to the heart murmur, the doctor had detected that my blood pressure was creeping up. He suggested that I see my doctor regarding all this news. I was getting ready to move back to my hometown, Fresno, in just a few weeks so I thought that once I was all moved in I would contact a cardiologist. I decided I would make an appointment with the cardiologist that saved my older brother’s life a decade previous.

I was caught completely off guard. My first 55 years had been a cake walk.

Now, all of the sudden, “Houston we have a problem!”

After getting into to see Dr. John Nelson, he began to prescribe some medication that he thought would get my blood pressure down. Then he got down to brass tacks to try to find what the cause of my heart murmur to be. After an echocardiogram the doctor was beginning to get a feel for the culprit. Dr Nelson told me that the echo seems to point to a bicuspid aortic valve as the problem, but it wasn’t conclusive. He wanted for me to have and angiogram and that would help to flush out the answer. I had heard about that procedure and that you are awake when it is performed. My answer was “no Happy Valley, no angiogram!”

He didn’t like my response. So he sat back down and mulled over another plan. He asked me would I be interested in getting a 64-Slice? After he explained that it was non intrusive and that it was, in effect, a very strong xray, a Cat Scan type of procedure. At that time it was very leading edge. He would like to get me into this new test program in San Francisco that was cutting edge at the time and give him a better look at my aortic valve via that scan. He was pretty sure that my insurance would not cover the expense, but that he could get me enrolled for free,

I agreed that if it wasn’t going to cost me a thing, and that there was no adverse conditions or pain, I would do it.

It took several weeks to get my schedule and the facility’s schedule worked out. But, we made it work and soon I was off to downtown San Francisco for my 64-Slice.

It was a very simple, interesting, and basically a non-invasive procedure. It was like an enhanced x-ray with contrast. That was a very important piece of the puzzle to gather in order to make the proper diagnosis for me.

Having gathered the info from the 64-Slice, there was just one more test or piece of evidence required to nail down the reason for the murmur. Dr. Nelson suggested that I have a TEE (Transesophageal echocardiogram). I agreed to have that procedure at the hospital with Dr. Sandhu (you may hear more about this doctor later in this series, he was a trip)! I found out that the aortic valve lies right next to your esophagus, and this procedure allows a very up close and personal look at the aortic valve.

In a few days following the TEE Dr. Nelson concluded that I have a bicuspid aortic valve (two folds or flaps), normally the aortic valve is tricuspid or three fold or flaps. My bicuspid aortic valve is genetic. As Lady Gaga sang, “I was Born That Way”! It is genetic, in that, I received this from either my mom’s genes or my dad’s genes!

The results of the TEE gave Dr. Nelson the vital piece of knowledge to fully understand and diagnose what was to come down the road!

Now realize that this all happened in the time frame of late 2006 and the Spring of 2007.

What lies ahead for me will be eye opening and life changing!

This post will the first part of a several part series that I am in the process of writing to bring you up to date as to what is currently happening to me……… open heart surgery in the next six weeks.