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Astronaut Lovell gives thumbs up to doctors after heart surgery

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Capt. James A. Lovell, of Lake Forest, has been sharing his heart with his wife and favorite Valentine, Marilyn, for 61 years.

However, the 85-year-old NASA astronaut recently put his heart and the rest of his body in the care of NorthShore University HealthSystem, undergoing two vascular-related surgeries.

Noting that February is American Heart Month, Lovell’s doctors say the choices he made may have extended his life.

“Life’s a risk for everybody,” said the former commander of Apollo 13. “You have to measure very carefully the pros and cons.

“I’ve made decisions all of my life. That Apollo 13 was risky all the way, we had to make decision after decision. Fortunately, the decisions we made on how to get back home again were successful.”

Simple tasks like raising a limb are cherished after Lovell’s two surgeries. The first procedure was last summer to his neck. His second surgery last autumn addressed leg weakness.

Dr. Jay Alexander, Lovell’s cardiologist of 30 years, and Dr. Navyash Gupta, his vascular surgeon, acted after a routine NASA physical.

“What was interesting about James Lovell’s carotid artery case was that he was asymptomatic [showed no symptoms],” Alexander said.

Alexander referred Lovell to Gupta.

“Capt. Lovell had developed plaque build-up in the carotid artery that was causing significant narrowing,” Gupta said.

“Because this blood vessel leads to the brain, once the blockage gets to a certain degree, there is an increased risk of pieces of the plaque breaking off and going to the brain and causing either a stroke or a mini-stroke,” Gupta said. “Cleaning the plaque out with the carotid endarterectomy procedure, or in some cases, using a stent to push the plaque aside, can prevent a stroke or [mini-stroke ].”

Lovell said the decision to undergo surgery was one of most important decisions of his life.

“Oh yes, perhaps one of them because, you know, it’s a very delicate operation,” he said.

Technology and mortality have changed drastically over the last 30 years, Alexander said.

“We are seeing people living healthfully into their eighties and nineties, getting closer to the century mark,” he said. “[Capt. Lovell] being very active and medically aggressive made him consider the long term complications and possibility of stroke.”

Lovell advocates regular medical screenings, especially when something doesn’t seem right.

“I guess I’m really fortunate,” he said. “... I feel good, I feel like I can walk and take the dog out.

“I’m thankful for the life I’ve had and the friends I’ve met and the life I’ve had with my wife, Marilyn. [I want to] thank the people who operated on me, Dr. Gupta especially. He did a fantastic job, and also Jay Alexander. These people are really helpful and they really are good people to know.”

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