BY AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

RbtEpps2Robert Epps went years not knowing he had a life-threatening heart condition. He had only a couple days to process how open-heart surgery to replace a valve would change his life.

Now, as an American Heart Association Heart Valve Patient Ambassador, Epps offers hope to other heart patients.

Epps was 35 when he had his first open-heart surgery in 1996. He was getting a checkup when his doctor detected a severe regurgitation coming from the artery in his neck and got referred to a cardiologist.

But as a U.S. Coast Guard petty officer first class, Epps had a training mission and didn’t get examined for another month. By then, he was experiencing intense pressure in his heart, another signal of what would turn out to be several serious cardiovascular problems, including a leaking aortic valve.

He’d known since his 20s that he had a benign heart murmur, so he ate a heart-healthy diet and didn’t smoke. But as he faced the complex surgery, Epps was terrified and angry.

“I kept asking, ‘Why me?’ ” he said. “I had just come from chef academy and running every day and climbing mountains.”

Epps, who now lives in Chesapeake, Virginia, went on to require two other major surgeries, write a book and launch a foundation to raise awareness about aortic disease.

Looking back on that first surgery, Epps, now 54, said he learned a lot about heart health and himself.

Getting through that first surgery was difficult, and knowing that a second major procedure was still needed weighed on him. At first he tried not to think about it, but soon accepted what was ahead.

“I finally came to grips and realized there wasn’t anything I could do about it,” Epps said.

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As an AHA Heart Valve Patient Ambassador, he now encourages patients to focus on their families and other loved ones, and how they can be there for them in the future.

“It’s motivating to focus on others and gets your mind off lying in bed in the hospital,” he said.

Following cardiac rehab, there were many changes Epps had to make.

“Emotionally, it was brutal,” he said. “I went from running 3 miles every day to having to slow down and be careful about everything.”

Epps was already eating heart-healthy foods, so diet adjustments centered on making sure certain foods, such as those containing vitamin K, didn’t interfere with medications he now required.

He also had to avoid contact sports, cutting basketball and football in favor of volleyball.

Work also changed. Epps’ job was cooking meals for senior Coast Guard officials. But following surgery, he wasn’t able to perform sea duty anymore, and his job shifted to training and other land-based assignments.

After his third surgery in 2004, he resolved to raise awareness about aortic disease. He meets with patients undergoing procedures at the hospital, speaks about aortic dissection and shares his story with others.

Epps recalls a time when he would avoid going to the doctor but now encourages men in particular to pay attention to their heart health.

“Men can be hard-headed and stubborn when it comes to their health,” he said.

Reflecting on those terrifying days around his first surgery, Epps wishes there had been survivors he could talk to so that he could focus on life after recovery.

“It feels good that I can talk to people and they can see how well I’m doing,” he said. “People see me and tell me, ‘I feel like I can make it now.’ ”