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Doctor and patient

Patient Jon Keippel of Billings talks about his heart valve replacement with cardiovascular surgeon Scott Millikan of Billings Clinic during the one-year anniversary celebration of the procedure on Tuesday.

The day after Jon Keippel had his aortic valve in his heart replaced, he was up and walking around his property, surprised he felt so strong. 

"I was amazed," he said. "I was just full of energy."

For cardiovascular surgeon Scott Millikan, his doctor, that's the point of the whole procedure. 

"You get the benefits immediately," he said. 

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Cardiovascular surgeon. Scott Millikan

Cardiovascular surgeon Scott Millikan of Billings Clinic speaks at the one-year anniversary celebration of the department's new aortic valve replacement procedure on Tuesday.

Last year Billings Clinic introduced the transcatheter aortic valve replacement procedure, which allows doctors to scope a patient's heart and replace the diseased valve without having to perform open-heart surgery. 

The procedure is aimed at people doctors judge to be inoperable, those who are otherwise too weak or sick to undergo a major invasive operation like open-heart surgery. 

"It changes the whole treatment paradigm," Millikan said. 

In the past, if someone had a diseased or faulty aortic valve and couldn't withstand open-heart surgery, they had few options for treatment in Billings, and quality of life, along with life expectancy, was low.

Keippel, who had open-heart bypass surgery 20 years ago, ended up in bad shape as his aortic valve started to deteriorate over the past few years. He couldn't walk across the room without ending up short of breath. His feet were often cold and he had tingling and numbness in his fingers. 

Another open-heart surgery was too risky, and so the transcatheter aortic valve replacement procedure was deemed the right move. The procedure changed Keippel's life. 

"The hope was I'd get back to the kind of way I was before," he said. "And that's what happened."

In the first year, the Billings Clinic transcatheter aortic valve replacement team has performed the procedure 59 times. 

"That's a very high number," said Per Sommer, the team's cardiologist. 

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Cardiologist Per Sommer

Cardiologist Per Sommer of the Billings Clinic speaks at the one-year anniversary celebration of the department's new aortic valve replacement procedure on Tuesday.

Generally, he said, when a major new procedure is introduced at a hospital the expectation is that it'll be performed a couple dozen times. Sommer and Millikan quickly discovered the demand was higher than they'd anticipated. 

Part of that has to do with the regional role that health care providers in Billings play. Billings draws patients from a wide swath of eastern Montana and northern Wyoming. 

But also a factor are those patients who have long needed the procedure and have avoided traveling to Denver or Salt Lake to get it done. 

"Patients don't have to travel as far now," Sommer said. "I think it's one of the most important things."

With the option now available in Billings, they've come to town to seek it out. 

To mark the one-year anniversary, Billings Clinic held a small celebration on Tuesday, which gave Millikan a chance to sit and chat with Keippel in a more relaxed setting. 

Millikan performed Keippel's open-heart surgery two decades ago, and he was on the team that inserted the new aortic valve into Keippel's heart last year. Keippel formed a close bond with Millikan and says the only reason he's around today is because of Millikan's care. 

"Seeing you here made my day," Millikan told him. 

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.