With Help, He's Going the Distance

Decades after a heart valve implant, Drew McCartt isn’t stopping. He’s got too much to do. And much to give back.

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Healthy Heart | Feb. 23, 2018

At 25, Drew McCartt was a newlywed and graduate student about to walk across the stage to pick up his Master’s diploma. But his heart problems caught up to him just as his doctor, who diagnosed him with a leaky heart valve issue when he was in high school, told him they would. McCartt knew he'd need to have his heart valve replaced eventually – sometime before age 30 – and the time had finally arrived.

He had recently noticed his fingers and toes were getting cold, a symptom he knew was related to his leaky heart valve. McCartt was diagnosed with an aortic heart murmur as a high school freshman cross country runner, but was trying to keep living life as he always had, until the more noticeable symptoms crept up.

"The natural valve I was born with started to leak and I wasn't getting fully oxygenated blood to my extremities. Those were the first indications," McCartt said.

As a teenager, his doctor's advice was simple: We’ll keep an eye on it. You keep doing what you do - enjoying the outdoors and running competitively. And that's what he'd done.

After all, even knowing he had an issue with his heart, the invincibility of youth has a way of making potential problems seem more like forgettable annoyances. If it were really serious, they would have told him to stop, right?

He kept going, all the way to the University of Tennessee as a scholarship athlete running cross country. He had enough energy left over to take up speed skating, where a brush with greatness found him competing against five-time Olympic gold medalist Eric Heiden.

By his own description, McCartt had always been, "go, go, go, go, go."

But at 25, his body was starting to slow. That's when his doctor told him he needed to have surgery to replace his leaky heart valve.

"When I finally got the word that surgery was going to happen, it was a bit surreal because, you know, when you're young and when you're active as I was, I was just a go, go, go person. Then I realized that, oh, yeah, I'm mortal. I have to have this surgery. It is going to happen," McCartt said. "And so I became a little bit worried about it, a little anxious about it."

His doctor was confident McCartt would do well with a replacement valve. In spring 1988, in went a pyrolytic carbon bileaflet valve, 31 millimeters in diameter, slightly bigger than a quarter. The valve was implanted between McCartt's aorta (the main blood vessel that delivers oxygen to the body) and left ventricle.

"It's very sophisticated technology — but the premise is fairly straightforward: It works like a carburetor," McCartt said.

"It's a butterfly valve. It has two semicircular leaflets that open and close the valve, similar to how a butterfly moves ... It pushes blood one way through your aorta, which feeds the rest of your body to give you oxygenated blood."

Three decades later, the valve is still there, doing its job. When it's really quiet and you're close enough, you can hear it working. Click-click. Click-click. Click-click.

"The same valve has been clicking and ticking away," McCartt said. "With my calculations, it has functioned flawlessly 770 million plus times over."

And counting.

Talk to McCartt for even a few minutes and you'll hear him repeat his appreciation for his good fortune, including having access to some of the best heart doctors and technology in the world.

"Zero complications. I've just been blessed. The healthier I can keep my heart, the better," McCartt said. "I have been able to do everything I’ve wanted to do."

Today, he's a husband and father. He's been backpacking — 100 miles at 6,500 feet of elevation. He's a Boy Scout leader. He's still running. And scuba diving. His list isn't done, not by any stretch.

McCartt is devoted to giving back, having spent years raising more than $1.25 million for heart research for the American Heart Association. In 2018, he's hoping to raise another $100,000 for research. Abbott is helping him reach his goal.

"I am so grateful for the life I've been given, how my life was saved and extended through the device Abbott made," McCartt said. "You could go through life and just take what is there. Or you can thrive and go after what the world has to offer you. That's why I want to help other people do the same thing."