L i v e Yo u n g e r L o n g e r
“When the doctor listened to my heart,
his eyes got real big,” Olson recalls.
“He said, ‘How long have you had a
heart murmur?’” Olson was told to go
home, avoid anything stressful—and
see a cardiologist.
A career-ending diagnosis
David Ploss, MD,
Olson had what’s
called a bicuspid
aortic valve. And
he delivered this
difficult news: No
more fighting fires.
“Every firefighter’s goal is to have that last
day on the engine, to walk out with your
head up and your body intact,” Olson
says. “I never had that. It was over—poof.”
It was a blow, but the risk simply wasn’t
The aortic valve controls blood flow from
the lower left chamber of the heart to the
aorta—the large artery that carries blood
away from the heart. A normal aortic
valve is made up of three cusps, which
resemble upside-down parachutes. They
open and close to keep blood flowing in
the right direction. But a bicuspid aortic
valve like Olson’s has only two cusps.
“Bicuspid aortic valves tend to degenerate
sooner than regular valves,” says Andreas
Sakopoulos, MD, FACS, a cardiothoracic
surgeon with Adventist Heart Institute.
“They can become leaky, or they can
Tests showed Olson’s valve was severely
leaky, forcing his heart to work harder. But
that wasn’t the only problem. “In addition,
his aorta was twice its normal size,
creating an aneurysm that could rupture,”
Dr. Sakopoulos says. That would end
more than his career—it could end his life.
By late 2014, it was no longer enough
to monitor Olson’s heart condition. To fix
What happens when
a lifesaver needs saving
To risk your life as a firefighter takes a generous spirit—plus a healthy heart.
And throughout his 22 years as a professional firefighter in Eureka, Keith Olson
assumed his heart would always be as fit for the job as his spirit was eager.
But during a routine firefighter’s physical in 2012, Olson was shocked
to learn he had a potentially life-threatening heart defect.
both problems, he needed a complex
surgery to replace both the leaky valve
and his ascending aorta, which is about
3 inches long.
From the moment we
arrived, we felt informed and
welcomed—there was a
strong sense of confidence.
David Ploss, MD, FACC
A hospital worth the commute
Olson and his wife, Monica, a registered
nurse, investigated the options. “In talking
to Dr. Ploss,” he says, “it was clear that
there were some hospitals that really
stood out in his mind.” St. Helena Hospital
had experts like Dr. Sakopoulos who could
handle everything from minimally invasive
valve replacement surgeries to more
complex open surgeries like Olson’s.
Though commuting to St. Helena meant
a nearly five-hour drive, the couple knew
they were in the right place. And extra