There and back with heart

Burr and Burton Headmaster Mark Tashjian is what most would describe as a very healthy man. An avid hockey player and runner, he did not know how sick he was until he obtained a full physical for a life insurance policy.

Diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse, where the mitral valve in the heart does not close and pump blood correctly, 15 years ago, Tashjian said doctors described his condition as leakage and to continue to live his life normally until he saw symptoms.

"This summer, I applied for life insurance," he said. "I'm 51 years old, I've got three little girls, I thought, you know what let's not be stupid here." He was rejected by the insurance company after they reviewed an echocardiogram from two years ago.

"I was kind of outraged, I never get sick. I'm exceedingly healthy...I haven't been sick in 25 years," he said.

Tashjian said he has the insurance company to thank because this lead him to get his heart checked out and even without showing symptoms, doctors his valve had deteriorated to the point that it was "virtually useless."

Open heart surgery was needed to repair the valve, he said.

"In terms of the operation itself, it's open heart surgery and they go in and either fix the valve or they give you a replacement," he said. "The mortality rate of this operation is two to three percent, which is low if you're betting on horses, but doesn't feel very low. I didn't like those odds very much." His wife, Erin, did research on the surgery and found the Cleveland Clinic was the best place to have the operation. Tashjian said he went to the Cleveland Clinic website to watch a video about the operation, and the doctor on the film was a familiar face.

A. Marc Gillinov was in Tashjian's graduating class at Yale.

"He was in my class in 1984 and back then we knew he was very smart," he said. "I called him up and said before we catch up on the last 30 years, here's my situation."

Gillinov assured Tashjian he had nothing to worry about, Tashjian said.

"If you need to have a major operation, I recommend that you have it with somebody you really feel good about," Tashjian said.

Only three weeks after talking to Gillinov, Tashjian found himself in Cleveland, ready to get his mitral valve prolapse fixed.

The surgery took place on Tuesday October 22.

"I felt such ease about the operation knowing the outcome was ultimately going to be good," he said. "I hadn't spent much time thinking about what happened in between when I'm a turbo charged version of myself and when they first cut my chest open."

Tashjian said the surgery is "like getting your butt kicked."

There is an 8 inch incision, the chest is cracked and the heart is stopped, running the body instead on a heart lung machine, while the repair is made, he said.

Tashjian was able to have his mitral valve repaired, as opposed to entirely replaced.

"[The repair] Which is actually more difficult than replacing, but better...that's why they chose to do it in a more invasive manner," he said.

Erin Tashjian said the first incision of the surgery was at 2:22 p.m., the major portion of the surgery took place at 3 p.m. and Gillinov left the operating room at 4:30 p.m. Gillinov told her this surgery is generally three times as long as Tashjian's.

"You get a little beeper, for the family members and you get updates sent to you," she said. "They [the Cleveland Clinic] take really good care of the family members."

Tashjian's surgery was faster than usual for the valve replacement because he was very strong, she said. His heart was enlarged, which can mean the heart is in stress, but Tashjian's heart was enlarged because, as Gilinov told her, it is "the heart of an athlete."

Now that Tashjian is home from Cleveland and recuperating, he has not felt restricted by doctor's orders.

"I don't have any urge to go play hockey right now, mostly what I've had the urge to do is lie around and maybe go for a walk and get the blood flowing," he said. "I think a lot of it is getting some movement into my body and allowing time...and healing to take its course."

While Tashjian is at home and healing, Meg Kenny, the assistant headmaster of Burr and Burton Academy is serving as acting head.

"I've got in Meg Kenny, she's an absolutely superb assistant headmaster, and she is the acting headmaster," he said. "And that should remain and that clarity needs to remain, Meg's in charge."

While he recovers at home, Tashjian will still do some work on some isolated, long term projects, like the trustee meeting he attended on Wednesday Oct. 30. Tashjian said he still plans on playing the part of Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard's father in "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later."

"I really want to do it because I've never been in a play, because it's a personal growth opportunity," he said.

Overall, Tashjian and his wife said they are grateful for all the support and help they received from the town and the Burr and Burton Community. "To be a part of this community and to be a part of Burr and Burton, and those kinds of connections have been tremendously supportive," he said.

"Coming back to Manchester, it's pretty sweet. Most people leave the hospital and come back to a big city and they are much more alone," Erin Tashjian added. "People have been reaching out right and left."

Now that his heart is fixed and he is recovering, Tashjian said he is grateful for all that he is feeling.

"If I feel better than expected, great. I feel pretty good within moments and if I feel like I've been through something, great. I feel like I'm living, " he said.


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