It was the morning after my open heart bypass surgery at UCLA Medical Center, and I was sitting up in the ICU, feeling no pain thanks to a little bit of morphine. That's when my surgeon, Dr. Richard Shemin, and his staff happened by and shared some news about my operation to repair my leaky mitral valve.
"While we were looking at the heart," said Dr. Shemin, " we found a small PFO -a hole - and we repaired it with a patch." He noted they had not seen it until the TEE (trans esophageal echocardiogram) they did just prior to beginning the surgery and all of my prior echocardiograms had never revealed it.
A PFO (patent foramen ovule) is not uncommon; millions of us have them and most of us will never know it. This hole between the chambers of the heart is open until just before birth, when it closes in an estimated 80% of newborns. Those whose openings remain just that - open - can be at higher risk for stroke (singer Bret Michaels, whom you may remember from Celebrity Apprentice, had surgery to close his after suffering a very serious cerebral event.) The hole functions as a valve, sending blood intended for the lungs off to the brain. Still, events such as Michaels' are uncommon.
A hole in the heart might have other implications. After PFO surgery for other reasons, some sufferers indicated a reduction in migraine attacks. However, a study indicates that there was no significant effect on migraines from this surgery. My experience was exactly the opposite. One of the after effects I noticed was an increase in migraine aura without headache, flashing and zig-zagging lines in my vision, which I had noticed rarely before the operation. Other than that, the hole in my heart (now patched) plays the same role it always did - I am entirely unaware of it.
An echocardiogram will usually show a PFO and let your doctor know if this is something you need to address.