BernardOakes3Bernie Oakes got his first signal that something was wrong with his heart in his early 20s, while undergoing a physical for the Marine Corps. His blood pressure was high, but came down when the test was repeated after he lay down to relax.

“They figured it was just ‘white coat syndrome’ and left it at that,” said Oakes of Traverse City, Michigan.

When his blood pressure didn’t come down during a routine checkup a decade later, Oakes was put on medication and eventually quit a decade-long smoking habit. By his 40s, he was also on medication for high cholesterol.

By the time Oakes was in his late 60s, his doctor noticed a heart murmur, a possible sign of a heart valve problem, and referred him to a cardiologist.

Years later, Oakes’ cardiologist found blockages and advised him to schedule bypass surgery. Instead, the then-76-year-old went to Yellowstone Park. There, Oakes fainted and after consulting with a local doctor, flew home to undergo triple bypass surgery. He underwent cardiac rehabilitation and resumed his regular exercise routine.

“I was back to normal as far as I was concerned,” he said.

But in early 2014, while saying goodbye to a neighbor, Oakes passed out. Doctors found he needed a new heart valve. He received a bovine valve, made from a cow, and again had a smooth recovery.

Bernie Oakes with longtime companion Billie Frost.

Bernie Oakes with longtime companion Billie Frost.

“Had it not been for medical science advancements in the last 20 years, I wouldn’t be talking today,” said Oakes, now 85. “I have a high quality of life and I feel great.”

He now volunteers at his local hospital and senior centers, sharing his experience with patients preparing for surgery and talking about heart health to local groups. He also offers support to other patients as an American Heart Association Heart Valve Patient Ambassador.

Although the last thing he wanted going into surgery was “some clown telling me not to worry,” Oakes said he has enjoyed meeting with patients and doing what he can to ease their concerns.

“They tell me they feel better and have more confidence, and that’s the finest reward I can get,” he said.

Photos courtesy of Bernie Oakes