Dennis Dobkowski’s heart valve problem didn’t seem so bad at first. It had actually begun with the detection of a heart murmur during a routine doctor’s visit 15 years ago. At the time it wasn’t life-threatening, but rather just something to keep track of.
But in one brief doctor’s visit in 2014, everything changed for the then 67-year-old from Southern California. “I started feeling totally exhausted all of the time and couldn’t focus on work. When I went in for a checkup, my doctor told me I had a leaking heart valve,” recalls Dennis.
He and his wife, Ann, a registered nurse, were told he’d need to have heart valve surgery within the next month and a half.
The sudden change was a wake-up call for the couple. “I had no idea. When they said a heart murmur, I didn’t realize it could progress to valve failure,” admits Dennis. “At that point I was going merrily along. But all at once it got more serious.”
“He was always an active man,” adds Ann. “All of the sudden, I could barely get him out of the chair. There was such a difference.”
Knowing the serious implications of Dennis’ condition, the couple followed their doctor’s advice and scheduled the surgery.
To prepare for the surgery, Dennis and Ann started to research heart valve disease. They were surprised to find that there wasn’t as much available information as one may expect for a life-threatening disease that affects more than five million Americans.
Fortunately, Dennis crossed paths with someone who had experienced heart valve surgery and was able to prepare him for what was to come.
Dennis not only successfully came out of his surgery, but he also found a new calling: as a heart valve disease ambassador for the American Heart Association (as did Ann).
“After my surgery, I met people from the AHA who said they were starting an Ambassador program for heart valve disease,” he says. “Both Ann and I got involved.”
Today, Dennis is enjoying his post-surgery life and his new passion for educating others about heart valve disease. “People often have symptoms like I had and think it is connected to ‘old age.’ But they can be the warning signs for heart valve disease. We want people to listen to their heart and get it checked out with their doctor. It could be life-saving. In my case it was, and every new day is a gift for me.”