Robin Williams' Heart Surgery: Road to Recovery

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Updated: 9/30 5:08 pm

March 24, 2009 -- Comedian and actor Robin Williams, who underwent successful heart surgery 10 days ago at the Cleveland Clinic, is expected to make a full recovery within eight weeks, according to a statement released Monday by Williams' publicist, Mara Buxbaum.

"The 3 1/2-hour heart surgery was conducted to replace his aortic valve, repair his mitral valve, and correct his irregular heartbeat," A. Marc Gillinov, MD, a staff cardiothoracic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, says in the news release.

In early March, Williams postponed upcoming performances of his one-man show, "Weapons of Self-Destruction," announcing that he needed to undergo surgery for an aortic valve replacement.

Although initial news reports did not mention the problem with the mitral valve and the irregular heartbeat, they often occur together with aortic valve disease, says John Robertson, MD, director of thoracic and cardiac surgery at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. He did not treat Williams. "It's not uncommon when you have aortic valve disease to have mitral valve disease," he says.

Sometimes, replacing the aortic valve will solve the mitral valve problem, Robertson tells WebMD. But if there is significant damage, the usual action is to repair the mitral valve during the same surgery, he says.

The aortic valve sits between the aorta, the main blood vessel coming out of the heart, and the main pumping chamber, the left ventricle. It helps maintain blood flow out of the heart and into the body. The mitral valve is between the left atrium, the upper chamber, and the left ventricle, and helps blood flow in one direction.

Although the news release did not say what type of irregular heartbeat was corrected in Williams, it may be atrial fibrillation, Robertson says. "A lot of people with valve disease have atrial fibrillation," he tells WebMD. When it occurs, the two small upper chambers of the heart, called the atria, quiver instead of beating normally. That means blood isn't pumped completely out of them, boosting the risk of a blood clot.

To surgically treat this type of irregular heartbeat, Robertson says, physicians can perform a procedure known as the maze procedure, in which they create multiple cuts into the atrial muscle. This interferes with the stray electrical impulses that cause the fibrillation and restores a regular heart rhythm.

The news statement did not say which type of valve Williams got -- a mechanical valve, which requires a patient to be on blood thinners the rest of his life, or a tissue valve, retrieved from a cow or pig. Either would be appropriate for Williams, 57, says Robertson, although the mechanical valve would be expected to last longer.

Cleveland Clinic declined to comment further, as did Williams’ publicist. Williams' tour is expected to resume this fall.

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