Veronika Meyer Climbs Everest After Heart Valve Surgery

Category: Chest Wall and Sternal reconstruction

When Veronika Meyer reached the top of the world at 4 a.m. Wednesday (Nepalese time), she tried to retrieve her camera, tucked near her chest. But her snowsuit zipper had frozen shut, so a fellow climber took some snaps instead.

Luckily Veronika Meyer’s mechanical heart valve – made by Little Canada-based St. Jude Medical Inc. – was working full-force. The 56-year-old Swiss chemist is believed to be the first climber implanted with a heart valve to successfully ascend Everest.

“Conditions were excellent this year with a lot of snow, but in addition, all of us were strong,” Meyer said in an e-mail to St. Jude on Thursday.

This was Veronika Meyer’s fourth try in the Himalayas to scale the world’s tallest mountain, which is 29,033 feet above sea level. She already had climbed the highest peak on each of the world’s six remaining continents.

But until this week, she was thwarted by Everest every time. On two occasions Veronika Meyer turned back because of dangerous weather, and last year she suffered from flu-like symptoms unrelated to her heart condition. Three years ago, her expedition was canceled, and she never left Switzerland.

This time around, conditions on the mountain were favorable – at least for Veronika Meyer and her team. A few days earlier, two South Korean mountaineers died after being hit by falling rock on the southwest wall of Everest while trying to find a new route to its peak.

Since New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first conquered Everest in 1953, about 2,000 climbers have scaled the mountain. Another 205 people have died on its slopes.

Meyer was joined on the summit by an expedition leader, also from Switzerland, a Norwegian climber and two Sherpas, or local guides. They lingered at the summit for just 15 minutes, planting a flag bearing St. Jude Medical’s logo, before heading back to a base camp at 27,200 feet where a “great kitchen and nice personal tent” awaited, Meyer wrote.

Meyer was diagnosed at age 23 with aortic valve disease, where one of the four valves that control the flow of blood to the heart fails to function properly. Her faulty valve was replaced when she was 46 years old by a mechanical device made by St. Jude. She was a mountaineer before her heart surgery, and she climbed the tallest peaks on five continents, including Everest, after the operation.

Thirty years after St. Jude’s first mechanical valve implant, the device is still considered to be a workhorse in the company’s product portfolio, although most surgeons now opt for bovine or porcine valves instead. St. Jude helped sponsor Meyer’s climb.

“Veronika’s amazing accomplishment should offer inspiration to millions of heart-valve patients around the world,” said George Fazio, president of St. Jude’s cardiovascular division. “Despite living with a heart condition for many years, she has refused to accept limits and has pursued her goals with tremendous courage and determination.

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