One man’s courageous battle to save his heart and his life

Heart Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Feb 21, 2024

Parker Pierce has always been inquisitive and creative—that’s why he became a 2-D animator. At 32, he was healthy and looking forward to an exciting future. Little did he know he was about to face a health battle of more than eight months, one that would almost cost him his life. This is Parker’s story.

Sudden stroke reveals hidden heart defect

“I had bronchitis and pneumonia at the same time,” Parker said. “I’m not sure how I got them. All I know is I felt terrible for a while, and I lost a significant amount of weight.”

As he struggled to conquer his lung issues, he experienced a stroke and was rushed to a medical center in Tyler. Parker’s mother, Paula, who lives near Vancouver, WA, and has been by his side throughout his recovery, said she received an early morning call from the hospital to tell her Parker had had a stroke.

“It was shocking to me,” she said. “They said his oxygen level was dropping and they asked my permission to intubate him. I called Parker’s brother in Spokane and he and I got on separate flights and met at Dallas Fort Worth airport. We hopped in the rental car and drove to Tyler as fast as we could. I immediately began researching stroke because that’s what I thought we were dealing with.”

His care team at the hospital in Tyler discovered he had developed endocarditis, an inflammation of the inner lining of the heart that usually involves the heart valves. An echocardiogram revealed Parker had a congenital heart defect known as bicuspid aortic valve, the most common congenital heart abnormality, affecting nearly 2% of the population.

As he would later learn, he inherited the disorder from his grandmother. Normally, the aortic valve has three cusps (flaps) that open and close to regulate blood flow from the heart into the aorta. A bicuspid aortic valve has only two cusps, making it harder for the valve to function properly, sometimes allowing blood to flow back into the heart.

When the endocarditis attacked Parker’s bicuspid aortic valve, it began to eat away at the valve and a fragment broke off and traveled to his brain, causing his stroke. Neurosurgeons at the hospital attempted to remove the fragment but were unsuccessful, so they placed a stent in Parker’s brain. The procedure created bleeding in his brain that resulted in a second stroke, paralyzing his right side and affecting his speech.

As the severity of his condition became apparent, numerous members of his care team, including a young physician who had completed training at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas, suggested Parker be moved. Thanks to the efforts of all of his caregivers, within a matter of a few hours, the Dallas hospital accepted Pierce’s transfer.

Getting the right care for Parker’s heart

When Parker arrived at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas, he was intubated and sedated. He was unable to move his entire right side and remained on the ventilator because his leaky heart valves were causing blood to leak back into his lungs.

“Even though the surgery he needed was high risk, it was absolutely necessary to ensure he would live and recover,” said Alexander Sbrocchi, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon on the hospital’s medical staff. “There is a delicate timeframe to allow healing from his stroke, but not waiting too long before he had another.”

Parker’s mother and his care team worked together to find the right window of opportunity to replace the valves and get rid of the infection. Dr. Sbrocchi performed an aortic valve replacement and repaired Parker’s mitral valve with a piece of bovine pericardium, the lining of the heart from a cow.

Parker spent several months in the intensive care unit at Baylor University Medical Center. He was on a feeding tube for two months and also experienced some damage to his vocal cords from being intubated for most of that time.

Slowly but surely, Parker began to regain his strength and his voice.

“Eventually, he began to whisper, then speak more normally as his condition began to improve,” Paula said.

He was transferred to Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation to begin his arduous regimen of strengthening and speech therapy.

“His doctors said he could return to Washington, but we wanted him to stay at Baylor Scott & White because the care was so good and the continuity and level of care he was receiving simply wasn’t available in Washington,” Paula said. “We also were committed to having Parker continue with his doctors because, given his age, we knew that early intervention and therapy was a huge advantage to his recovery.”

Parker’s hard work has paid off.

“He’s regained a lot of movement in his paralyzed arm and hand and in his leg. He’s able to walk now,” Paula said.

Parker’s recovery has been fueled by his perseverance and positive mindset.

“The therapists love him because he jumps right in and does everything he’s asked to do, then he asks for more homework,” his mother said. “He asks lots of questions and he’s fascinated when the therapists tell him how his body works and how doing this exercise first would enable him to do that later. He takes it all to heart.”

Dr. Sbrocchi said Parker is recovering remarkably well and credits the entire team of physicians, nurses, social workers, physical and occupational therapists and others for Parker’s successful surgery and recovery. Today, he has almost regained 100% of his strength on the right side of his body.

“He was able to walk into my clinic and shake my hand with that right side, which is remarkable since he was not able to move it at all a few months prior,” Dr. Sbrocchi said. “His prognosis is great. He should be able to live a happy, healthy life.”

A second chance at life

Parker and Paula are grateful for the care and compassion they received every step of the way throughout his long and difficult journey.

“Everyone knew what they were doing and took time to explain it all to me,” Paula said. “They addressed all our questions and didn’t discount any of our concerns or suggestions. We were definitely seen and heard. I was not only allowed to advocate for my son, I was encouraged to do it.”

Parker agreed, saying that he appreciated his care team’s attention to detail and willingness to answer questions.

“They were very good at explaining why things were the way they were, how they were addressing them, what they could and couldn’t do, and what to expect,” he said. “I really appreciated all the information.”

As for Paula, she’s simply grateful for the miracle of her son’s life.

“I’ve told this story so many times,” Paula said. “In the beginning, we didn’t think he was going to make it. Then he was accepted by Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital in Dallas and everything changed. Sometimes I feel like I’m making the whole thing up because it seems more like a movie. But it was real, and I’m convinced he’s with us today due to divine intervention.”

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