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Carol Ashton

Some stories are best told by those who lived them

Carol Curtis Ashton, who has been a heart patient for most of her 70 years, is an example. Here is her story.

I was born with a heart valve defect that meant my aortic valve never closed correctly. Typically, it is a condition that advances from mild to severe as a patient ages.

In the 1950s and 60s, our little town of Paso Robles, California, did not even have a cardiologist. I came under the care of  Dr. Jack Mosley, a “traveling cardiologist” who served several counties from his base at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. Dr. Mosley was a fellow Texan who knew of Dr. Cooley and his work at the Texas Heart Institute.

Carol Ashton at THI in 1966.In 1966, when I was 23, Dr. Mosley felt it was time for my valve to be replaced. He made an appointment for me with Dr. Cooley.

I met Dr. Cooley, a catheterization was performed and I was scheduled for aortic valve replacement the following day. While I was on the operating table, Dr. Cooley made a decision that would later prove to be brilliant. He decided to repair the valve rather than replace it.

He reasoned that I was very young and artificial valve science was still evolving. He knew that a replacement would set me on a track of many valve surgeries during my life, as valves, at that time, only lasted so long. As I recall, he felt the repair, with luck, would buy me 7 to 10 years with my native valve, time to allow further advancement in the field.

He was right and it wasn’t until 1980 that I began having symptoms again. By then, Paso Robles had grown enough to have a local cardiologist and, after testing me, he felt it was time for valve replacement. He wanted to send me to Stanford Medical Center, but I declined and made my own appointment with Dr. Cooley. Dr. Cooley examined me and Dr. Roberto Lufschanowski performed the cath.

The diagnosis: The valve repair was still doing great!

The problem was my lungs. Months before, my local cardiologist had recommended that I curtail all physical activity, which I had done. Dr. Cooley recommended that I go home, enroll in an exercise class and build my lung capacity. I took his advice and the symptoms disappeared.

At this point, my valve repair had been good for 14 years.

In 2006, symptoms began again bothering me. My cardiologist placed me on a 6-month echocardiogram watch. By 2007, he was convinced the valve was in need of replacement. I e-mailed Dr. Cooley and an appointment was made with him and Dr. Lufschanowski. The diagnosis—it was finally time for replacement.

Dr. Cooley joked with me that had I arrived two years earlier, he would have performed the surgery, but by then he had “hung up his scalpel.” Instead, he assigned Dr. Michael Duncan as my surgeon. Since we had such a long history, I asked Dr. Cooley to be an observer in the operating room for good luck. He was happy to oblige.

Dr. Duncan did a wonderful job. I am pleased to report that I am still doing great.

This journey began with Dr. Mosley and his excellent referral to Dr. Cooley. Before he retired some years back I paid him a social visit to thank him.

The repair Dr. Cooley performed lasted 41 years! I don’t know if that is some kind of a record, but it certainly allowed me to keep my native valve and still maintain a good quality of life.

Carol Curtis AshtonI turn 70 years old this year.

Dr. Cooley, Dr. Duncan and the Texas Heart Institute are part of my life. I will always be grateful to them, and owe my life to them. I basically grew up, and grew old, under their care.

Today, my quality of life remains excellent. Among my recent adventures: I explored the Grand Canyon on a two-day mule trip. I did a walking trip through the Petrified Forest. I descended a long rope ladder into cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde to explore the Indian ruins. I rafted a Class 4 whitewater river, flew over a volcano, and ocean rafted through the sea caves in Kauai.

I don’t intend to stop there. What more could a heart patient wish for? To quote the Old West gunslingers, I plan to die with my boots on!

My wish is that my gift* will help others the way I have been helped by the wonderful, brilliant researchers, inventors, diagnosticians, cardiologists, surgeons and staff of the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital.


* Ms. Ashton is participating in THI’s Planned Giving program, the Legacy Society.

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