James Tembrock of St. Cloud, Minn., wanted a less-invasive option when he needed heart valve replacement surgery. His search led him to the cardiovascular surgery team at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire — one of the few facilities that offer the technically challenging procedure.

Mayo Clinic Health System

When James Tembrock, 73, of St. Cloud, Minn., learned he would need heart valve surgery, he says he never dreamed his search for a less-invasive option would lead him to Eau Claire. But he’s glad it did.

“Around three years ago, my primary physician noticed a gurgling sound in my heart,” Tembrock says. “An echocardiogram showed my aortic valve was obstructed.” It was something to keep an eye on.

As the valve became more constricted, he began to experience the symptoms of heart failure.

“I was starting to feel short of breath,” Tembrock says. During a drive through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, the high altitude and ozone level amplified his symptoms.

“I was getting really short of breath and afraid I wouldn’t be able to go across the Continental Divide,” Tembrock says. “My heart valve was at one quarter its normal size at that point.”

Searching for options

James Tembrock, who holds a master’s degree in nursing and worked for 35 years at the Veterans’ Administration hospital in St. Cloud, knew there were less-invasive valve replacement procedures that did not require open-chest surgery.

Having earned his first nursing degree at Mayo Clinic’s Rochester, Minn., campus, he knew where to call. His wife, Sheila, made the call and was told the procedure was offered at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.

“I said, ‘Eau what?’” Sheila Tembrock says.

In Eau Claire, James Tembrock was connected with Dr. Robert Wiechmann, a cardiothoracic surgeon who told Tembrock he could perform the procedure through a 5-centimeter incision between the ribs. Minimally invasive aortic valve replacement is technically challenging and offered by few surgeons.

“Given the option, people are thrilled not to have their chest cracked open,” Wiechmann says. “With this procedure, there is less pain. They can recover faster and get back to lifting, working and normal activity in half the time or less.”

A personal connection

Tembrock and Wiechmann discovered they had something else in common: Both attended St. John’s University in St. Cloud. Tembrock also served as land use manager at St. John’s, where Wiechmann had enjoyed spending time outdoors.

“That was a nice connection for us,” Wiechmann says

“We had a bond of trust because of that,” says Tembrock. “And we were able to catch up on all the ‘Johnnie’ (St. John’s) news.”

A good candidate

Patients who need only valve replacement may be candidates for the minimally invasive procedure, Wiechmann says. Those who need a combination of valve and bypass surgery, or those who have had a previous operation involving the right chest or lung would not be candidates.

After meeting Wiechmann, Tembrock was sure he was doing the right thing in pursuing the surgery.

“I knew that if I didn’t have it, I would die,” he says. “My confidence was very high. Dr. Wiechmann performs this surgery all the time. That is a big factor you look for in a surgeon.”

Wiechmann says Tembrock’s medical background helped him ask good questions, and his research paid off in finding an option that worked well for him.

James and Sheila Tembrock say their spiritual needs also were met during their time in Eau Claire.

“We loved the spiritual care that was available, and the kind, compassionate care for hospital patients and families,” says James Tembrock, who also holds a master’s degree in theology and studied for the priesthood. He especially appreciated the hand-illuminated St. John’s Bible on display at the hospital.

Sheila Tembrock found comfort visiting the nearby Sacred Heart of Jesus-St. Patrick Parish adoration chapel while her husband was in surgery.

Feeling fantastic

James Tembrock says he was happy with his quick recovery after surgery.

“I was in quite good shape right away,” he says. “About a day and a half after surgery, Dr. Wiechmann looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Mr. Tembrock, you’re going to feel fantastic by tomorrow morning.’ When he came back, I said, ‘I’m ready to go. I’m out of here.’”

Tembrock and his wife were so happy with his care in Eau Claire that Sheila Tembrock went there for a second opinion on an issue with her wrist. They also have recommended Mayo Clinic Health System to other family members.

“The whole experience was amazing,” Sheila Tembrock says. “The care that he received was awesome.”

“It was definitely worth it,” James Tembrock says.