WWII veteran heart is going strong in St. Luke’s cardiac rehab
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101-year-old TAVR patient lived longer with heart care

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For six months, Donald Hitzel walked for 30 minutes on a treadmill during his weekly cardiac rehab classes at St. Luke’s Cardiac Rehabilitation. What makes this remarkable is the fact Hitzel is 101 years old, and he was recovering from a heart valve replacement.

The centenarian and World War II veteran became a celebrity of sorts, not only for his energetic recovery, but also because of his can-do spirit. He inspired other participants in the rehab program to be healthier.

Approved for TAVR

Hitzel first came to Spokane in 1939, before serving in the war where he commanded U.S. Army Air Corps air transport in the South Pacific from 1944-1945. He liked Spokane, so he returned to live and work there after the war. He had a long career managing credit unions – including one in Wenatchee – and enjoyed flying airplanes and restoring cars. 

In early 2020, a few years after his wife of 67 years died, Hitzel was living independently in his north Spokane home. He took good care of himself and walked regularly on his treadmill. Then he started experiencing shortness of breath.

Hitzel learned he had developed a narrowing of the aortic heart valve. Because of his overall good health, he was approved for a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR, which is placed into the existing aortic valve through a catheter. A small incision for the catheter is made in the leg or chest. Once the new valve is in place it immediately takes over, regulating blood flow out of the heart.

The heart team at Providence Spokane Heart Institute performs hundreds of minimally invasive TAVR procedures a year. For perspective, only one decade ago, Hitzel’s condition would have required open heart surgery.

“There’s no pain; I spent one night in the hospital and then went home, and the next day I was home and walking on the treadmill,” Hitzel told Treva Lind, a reporter for The Spokesman Review. “My son was there, and he couldn’t believe it, so he took pictures of me. I think I only went 15 minutes that day.”

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Smooth road to recovery

Hitzel entered St. Luke’s Cardiac Rehab program two months after the procedure. Immediately, he felt improvement in his endurance and breathing.

He worked with Rawnie Oehler, a registered dietitian nutritionist and clinical exercise physiologist at St. Luke’s, who noted that Hitzel “quickly took to his exercise regime.”

She said Hitzel was one of few patients who stayed on the treadmill the entire 30 minutes.

St. Luke’s rehab classes consist of around 30 minutes of monitored cardiovascular exercise and 15 minutes dedicated to educational topics such as blood pressure, nutrition and emotional health. There’s also stretching and some strength training mixed in.

Each patient starts the 36-session program with an evaluation for an exercise plan. Throughout the program they set goals and receive regular reviews.

Hitzel’s cardiologist, Dr. Muaz Abudiab, said referring recovering cardiac patients into St. Luke’s program has become a standard of care at Providence Spokane Heart Institute.

Living longer with heart care

Dr. Abudiab pointed out that as people live longer and are able to remain healthy, procedures such as TAVR will be more common in older patients like Hetzel.

“It may seem unusual to be doing these kinds of procedures on older patients, but we don’t like to think of age as a contraindication by itself,” he told The Spokesman Review. “We’re recognizing these are the types of patients we’ll be seeing more of and that we’ll be seeing more stories like this in the near future.”

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Editor’s Note: Don was able to live independently, enjoying the peaceful farmlands of Five Mile Prairie, spending time with his family and friends. He recently passed away, leaving an impact on many, including our care teams. A celebration of life was scheduled on Don’s 102nd birthday.