Cow heart valve recipient feels better after his surgery

by Peter Jakey–Managing Editor

When Gary Grulke, 76, of Posen decided to visit a doctor in 2006, he had no idea he would be on the front line of medical advances involving the heart valves of animals. J.B. Cook PA-C examined Gary and noticed he had a pronounced heart murmur. He had an echogram and follow-up visits with other doctors, who did not seem to hear it. In the meantime, the years went by. In 2013, Gary learned that Cook was with Rogers City Medical Group.

“I was really impressed during the times that I saw him, and his dad was our family doctor for quite a few years, so I switched doctors,” said Gary. Right away, Cook noticed the heart murmur was louder. He referred Gary to cardiologist David Corteville who scheduled an echogram, stress echograms, as well as a cardiac catherization. It was confirmed that one of his heart valves had to be replaced. Aortic valves that have become severely blocked are typically degenerated and hardened such that repair is unlikely to result in a good long-term outcome, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Gary was scheduled to receive a pig valve late in the fall of 2013, but had a blood infection so the procedure was canceled.

“When they rescheduled me in April, I went in to see the doctor a week before my surgery and I was told ‘you are not going to receive a pig valve, we are going to give you a cow valve.’ What it is comprised of, I don’t know.”

His wife Sharon has a clipping of a Toledo Blade article from November (2014) about an Ohio man who was hailed as the first cow valve recipient. Sharon kept the small article, because she knows it is not true. If anybody was first, it was her husband. Gary is not claiming that, “But I had it a long time before he did. My doctor never told me I was the first.”

Additionally, he knows of an Alpena man who had the procedure and was rehabbing at the same time. People have been receiving cow valves and tissue replacements for several years. The Posen man is unclear of all the details surrounding the decision to use a cow valve instead of a pig valve. The surgeon involved did not immediately return a call.

“I did not know such a thing existed,” said Gary. Initially, he received a lot of jokes from family and friends. Since the procedure, he has a lot more energy. Sharon and Gary celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year on their property northeast of Posen. Both are Rogers City High School graduates. Gary graduated in 1956, while Sharon followed four years later in 1960. He served in the Army from 1961 to 1963 about the time of the Cuban Missle Crisis. He later took classes for surveying and engineering at Michigan Technological Institute under the Manpower Development and Training Act.

He worked for the city of Alpena for 33 years. Sharon was a beautician in Rogers City and other towns the couple lived in before the birth of their first son. She also worked at Alpena schools. “It’s a lot of give and take,” said Gary of being married. “We have had our ups and downs,” added Sharon.

“Once I retired, the years have been flying by,” said Gary. To get those extra years, some times it takes items found around the farm.