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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,

determined that

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

worth taking.

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

become narrow.”

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

Heroic Heart

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.

—Keith Olson

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