Dave Durenberger: Aortic Valve

Dave Durenberger: From health policy expert to grateful patient

As a U.S. Senator from Minnesota for 16 years and then a senior health policy Fellow at the University of St. Thomas, Dave Durenberger spent much of his career working on health care reform and health policy, including for medical technology and devices. Yet he never expected to be in a position where his own life would be impacted by a research study for a new medical technology. When he indeed got that lifesaving opportunity from the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation® (MHIF), he felt like he “won the lottery.”

Dave, 83, was born with a defective aortic valve, but it wasn’t discovered until he had his first U.S. Army physical in the 1950s. His condition was always asymptomatic, and he was told he didn’t have to worry about it until he got older. For most of his adult life, he was very diligent about periodically having an echocardiogram to check the valve’s health and function, but he had recently gone a few years without one.

In early 2017 while Dave and his wife, Susan Foote, were doing one of their regular 60- or 90-minute hikes in the hills near their winter home in Marin, Calif., he noticed that he was short of breath and needed to stop for breaks more frequently. He decided when they returned to Minnesota in March to make an appointment with his cardiologist.

His cardiologist’s exam revealed he had a “serious problem,” and she told him to get an echocardiogram the next day, which he did. “Thirty minutes later, she called me and said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’” He had been scheduled to leave in two days on a trip to Washington, D.C., with 60 of his former MBA students.

Dave’s aortic valve had developed stenosis, which is the process of thickening and stiffening in the valve, resulting in a reduction in blood flow. It’s one of the most common and most serious valve disease problems. From the onset of symptoms, the average survival rate is 50 percent at two years and 20 percent at five years.

His cardiologist immediately arranged for him to meet with Paul Sorajja, M.D., a cardiologist at Minneapolis Heart Institute® (MHI) and an MHIF research physician who serves as the lead investigator for the Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR Low Risk) research study, which uses an investigational valve replacement system from Medtronic. With this new minimally invasive technique, patients are able to leave the hospital often within 24 hours in contrast to open heart surgery patients, who are often in the hospital for a few days.

“I was excited to be a part of a demonstration of the new transcatheter technology, which would likely, over time, replace existing procedures,” said Dave. “At the end of my procedure, Dr. Sorajja told me, ‘Dave, you are very lucky to be alive.’ I broke down crying and he left to show my family all the data about how close I was to the cliff of life.”

Today, Dave and Susan are back to their normal routines, and he has a more serious attitude about his heart health now, as well as a fresh perspective on health care policy and medical research. “It’s a fantastic world we live in, and it’s an expensive world right now. But the only thing that’s going to make health care more affordable — by making it more effective as well — is really good research like that which MHIF is doing, really good practitioners like those at MHI, and a really good payment system that reimburses for quality and effectiveness rather than simply procedures.”

Dave continued, “It wasn’t until after my surgery that I fully appreciated the commitment that MHI physicians have made through MHIF to spend years collecting information on value-based health care. These physicians have earned their top reputations on the basis of research and the application of that research. I feel great joy and gratitude over the relatively small, and seemingly miraculous, procedure that has significantly extended my life. And I’m grateful to live in a community like ours, where this combination of medical education, research, innovation and practice is made possible by the voluntary contributions of so many of us.”