Published on June 24, 2022

Let's check in: Detection of heart murmur during routine checkup keeps Duluth woman safe

As warming temperatures encourage more time outdoors and a return to busier lifestyles, Essentia Health advises you to check in on your health.

That’s especially important for folks who may have foregone routine visits and preventive care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Being proactive is the best way to remain healthy. Preventive care, such as well-child/teen visits and annual checkups for all ages, can identify potential problems and treat them immediately. Successful outcomes are more likely when conditions are detected early.

Few people can attest to that better than Jen Smith. It was during a routine checkup with her primary care provider at the Essentia Health-Lakewalk Clinic in 2018 that Smith was diagnosed with a heart murmur. The remarkably active Duluth woman likely never would have known her heart was in distress were it not for her annual visit. Smith is an avid hiker and biker, lifts weights and is a longtime CrossFit enthusiast.

“I didn’t have any reason to go to the doctor regularly, but I would go in for my annual checkup,” the 44-year-old Smith said.

The heart murmur prompted a referral to the Essentia Health St. Mary’s-Heart and Vascular Center. An echocardiogram revealed a bicuspid aortic valve, meaning there are two flaps regulating blood flow through the valve, instead of three; moderate aortic stenosis, in which the valve narrows and restricts blood flow; and mild ascending aortic aneurysm, a bulge or weak spot in the aorta. Smith was monitored closely and communicated consistently with the cardiology team at St. Mary’s Medical Center. By January 2021, her symptoms warranted surgery. On Feb. 3, 2021, she had successful open-heart surgery to insert a mechanical aortic valve and replace her ascending aorta.

Smith subsequently participated in cardiac rehabilitation at Essentia.

“Going through that program gave me the confidence that it’s safe to build back up to what I was doing before,” she said.

A year removed from surgery and rehab, Smith is just as active as she had been. This past February, she traveled to Phoenix for a popular hiking destination — Camelback Mountain — and to take part in an intense fitness competition known as DEKA Fit, which includes 10 unique workouts targeting different parts of the body, each workout preceded by a 500-meter run.

Smith is glad she prioritized seeing her primary care provider, even though she felt fully healthy.

“It was enlightening to me that I could have something so serious and still feel really good,” she said. “I felt great before. I didn’t think anything was wrong. I thought I was fine, but I wasn’t. In that way, I would say even for the healthiest person, it’s important to have those checkups to get that professional opinion that you really are healthy.”

Preventive care is critically important regardless of age. Annual checkups for adults include tests for blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol; cancer screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies; the management of chronic conditions; addressing male- and female-specific concerns; and family planning/birth control.

During a well-child/teen visit at Essentia, we will take measurements for height and weight; conduct a comprehensive physical exam; discuss mental health concerns like anxiety and depression; update all immunizations or vaccines; talk about illness prevention, nutrition, physical fitness and health and safety issues; and complete sports physical forms.

“This story exemplifies the importance of establishing a relationship with a primary care provider and seeing them at regular intervals for preventive care,” said Dr. Jane Rudd, primary care division chair at Essentia. “We think most often of vaccinations, mammograms, pap smears, colon cancer screening or blood work, but a physical exam to check for heart and lung issues, GI problems, eye problems and skin issues is also very important.

“Though these visits are easy to put off when you are feeling well, many diseases can have minimal symptoms in the early stages that may be picked up by your provider. And we all know that we have the best chance of minimizing damage or successfully treating a disease when it’s caught in its earliest stages.”