By Susan Donaldson James
Raymond and Mazie Huggins, a devoted West Virginia couple with the same failing heart condition, didn’t think they would make it to their upcoming 74th wedding anniversary on Oct. 10.
But in August, Raymond or “Huggie Bear,” 96, and Mazie Leota, 93, received newly FDA-approved heart valves in a life-saving procedure on the same day.
“We went to the supper table one night and Raymond said, ‘If you have it done, then I will have it done and that’s how we will do it — together,'” Mazie said. “We went in together, had it done together and came home together.”
The couple went to the Cleveland Clinic for transcatheter aortic valve replacement or TAVR, a procedure designed for those who typically can’t withstand the risk of open-heart surgery. A catheter is wound through an artery in the groin and into the heart muscle.
This non-invasive surgery has been used on patients for some time, but the smaller valve required for the Huggins’ surgery was just approved in June after successful clinical trials.
“I’m very glad we had it and I am feeling fine,” said Mazie, a great-grandmother and former dental secretary. “I can’t get over there not being any pain afterwards.”
Now, the couple, both “with it” intellectually and otherwise healthy, can celebrate their long marriage at home in Moundsville, where they continue to live independently. They have every reason to expect to live an even longer life: Mazie’s maternal grandmother lived to be 108.
“My father’s goal was to live long enough to get on the Smuckers jar,” said their son, Roger Huggins, 67. “Last year, even with his heart problems, he made apple butter and applesauce out of the tree in the backyard.”
Roger said his father, a former glass factory shipper and retired prison guard, is “very strong and a tremendously hard worker.” He calls his mother an “angelic” woman who worries about others and is beloved by all who know her.
“My mother protects my father to the fullest,” said Roger. “He might make her madder than the dickens, but she protects him to the fullest.”
Two years ago, his parents had stents put in their hearts on the same day.
“I was in pre-op with them,” said Roger, a retired food company sales rep. “Their tables passed in the hallways and they were awake enough to make [the medical staff] stop their beds. They held hands and kissed each other and had the whole hospital crying.”
Roger, who drives three hours each way from his home in Erie, Pennsylvania, to check in on his parents and organize their medications, persuaded them to have the TAVR procedure after doing his own research.
Raymond insisted his wife go first, then his surgery followed.
“They both were prepared to pass away on the table,” said their son. “But it very well could have been much worse if my mother had woken up and my dad had died beside her. Or harder if my father had woken up.”
“The first thing my father said when he came out of the anesthesia was, ‘Am I alive?’” said Roger. “The second thing he said was, ‘Is my wife alive?’ The third thing he said is, ‘I’ve got to go out and fix the yard.’ He’s a workaholic.”
The Hugginses may not be the oldest patients ever to undergo TAVR surgery (some patients have been 98 and 100), but they were the first couple, according to their surgeon, interventional cardiologist Dr. Samir Kapadia.
“The data suggest that 50 to 60 percent would not make it until the end of the year with their condition,” he said. “They were declining fairly fast. … When they came to us they were very short of breath and had medical problems that were unbelievably complex.”
The aortic valve is the “door” to the heart, according to Kapadia. A normal opening is about 2.5 cm. But theirs were closed down to .3 and .4 — “about 10 times less.”
“Five or 10 years ago, nothing could have been done for them,” he said. “We would have had to stop the heart and open up the chest, and at that age the recovery would be up to two months, with significant risk,” he said.
Mazie was prepped for surgery first at 5:30 a.m. and Raymond followed at 9:30 a.m.
“The kissed each other and were in recovery opposite each other and wanted to be together holding hands in the same room,” said Kapadia.
By the evening after surgery, they were out of bed, and the next day, they were walking. Mazie’s release was delayed because of fluid in her lungs, so Raymond insisted on staying at the hospital with her for several more days.
The couple is now back at home with a part-time caregiver, looking forward to their anniversary next month.
Mazie attributes their 74-year happy marriage to good communication.
“There have been a few ups and downs,” she said. “If you don’t agree, get it out and say it and get it over with.”
Kapadia said the family’s closeness was an important factor in the surgery’s success.
“They are wonderful people,” he said. “Their son fought for them to be treated together as the only best option. Who would take care of the other one? It would have been a disaster for their family life.”
“But more than anything else, they wanted to live and celebrate and enjoy the last part of their life together.”