You could say Gwen Rhodes’s heart was stolen by cardiovascular nursing early in her career.

“I saw that you can fix a patient’s heart and they can go home, play with their grandchildren, pet their dogs and pick up their healthy, productive lives,” said Gwen. “It felt good.”

While attending Coconino Community College’s Nursing Program, Gwen worked as a nurse’s aide—a good way to experience the hospital environment and explore all the nursing profession offers. An astute instructor detected Gwen’s love of cardiovascular nursing. Soon, Gwen was trained as a telemetry monitoring technician – or “tele tech” – and was observing patients’ heart rhythms.

Gwen’s love of learning earned her an academic achievement award in science from Coconino Community College. While she describes it as a nice “kumbaya” moment, the recognition was confirmation both of the joy that learning brought Gwen and her dream to pursue a nursing career.

“As I was taking my prerequisites for the nursing program, I began to see how it all fit together,” Gwen said. “I would learn something interesting in my anatomy and physiology class and then pick up something else in my biology class and think, ‘Oh, these two are connected.’”

A Career with Heart
After earning her nursing degree in 2006, Gwen forged a path to her goal: the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU). She accumulated valuable experience caring for patients in a Telemetry Unit and an Intensive Care Stepdown Unit (SDU). After that, she transferred to the ICU and then she began training to care for patients in the CVICU of the hospital at which she worked.

“I really wanted to be in the CVICU, but you can’t be trained to recover hearts until you have at least one year of Intensive Care Unit experience,” she said.

In 2012, Gwen and her family moved to the Quad Cities—a homecoming of sorts. Gwen and her husband – who had moved to the community with his family as a teenager – lived in Prescott for the first five years of their marriage. When they returned, Gwen began working nights in the CVICU at The James Family Heart Center at Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC). That’s where she learned of YRMC’s plans to launch a Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR) program in November 2016. This would make The James Family Heart Center at YRMC among a relatively few in Arizona to offer the revolutionary procedure.

TAVR is a minimally invasive procedure for people with severe heart valve disease who are too ill to withstand open heart surgery. It’s performed through extremely small openings either through the groin or the lower portion of the heart. Cardiac interventionalists and cardiothoracic surgeons repair the aortic valve without removing the old, damaged valve. Instead, they insert a replacement valve into the aortic valve’s place. Once the new valve is expanded, it pushes the damaged valve leaflets out of the way and the tissue in the replacement valve takes over the job of regulating blood flow. All of this is done without opening the chest.

“I love bedside nursing so when I heard about TAVR and the TAVR Patient Navigator position the hospital was filling, I was unsure about leaving the clinical side,” said Gwen.

An interview with YRMC’s TAVR planning team and a conversation with Pierre Tibi, MD, Medical Director of The James Family Heart Center at YRMC, gave Gwen the encouragement she needed to pursue the job. Today, Gwen continues to “recover hearts,” but as the TAVR Program’s Patient Navigator.

TAVR Expands Heart Care
While Gwen’s title may include “TAVR,” the scope of her work is much broader. YRMC’s TAVR Program is part of an excellent Heart Program designed to connect people who need heart care services to a cardiologist for ongoing heart care.

“I’ve talked to TAVR Patient Navigators from other hospital programs and most of them only work with TAVR patients,” said Gwen. “At YRMC, we’re committed to helping people who should be under the care of a cardiologist find the heart care they need.”

This broader vision of heart care comes to life through YRMC’s Echocardiography (ECHO) Alert Program. An ECHO exam uses sound waves to track the heart’s activity and detect blockages. Developed by YRMC team members Tricia Perey and Jose Zuniga, RDCS, of YRMC’s Cardiopulmonary Laboratory, the ECHO Alert program notifies Gwen when a YRMC patient receives an abnormal ECHO.

“This is important because heart valve disease doesn’t get better,” she said. “It’s like wear on a tire. You can’t build up tread.”

TAVR Tuesdays
Another aspect of Gwen’s job is organizing the TAVR Clinic, which takes place each Tuesday at YRMC. Gwen coordinates the test the patient needs. This may include blood work, CT chest scan, echocardiogram, pulmonary function test or other exams. These results are provided to YRMC’s TAVR team – cardiac interventionalists and cardiothoracic surgeons – so they can determine if the individual is medically eligible for TAVR.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently restricts TAVR to people considered too high risk for traditional valve replacement surgery. For that reason, most TAVR candidates are in their 70s or 80s and often have other complicating medical conditions, such as diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

“Our goal is to be able to inform the patient if he or she is eligible for TAVR that same Tuesday,” Gwen said.

And, for people who are TAVR eligible, Gwen is their go-to source for information, questions and support.

“People who need TAVR are medically fragile,” she said. “It’s great they’re able to remain close to home for this procedure.”

And after they get to know Gwen, they’ll be glad someone with such a big heart is there to help them navigate the journey.

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