Heart Matters: An Irvine Company Designs a Heart Valve that Saves a World War II Veteran

Two Southern California gentlemen born decades apart. One is Michael A. Mussallem, Chairman of the Board and CEO of one of Irvine’s largest companies, Edwards Lifesciences. The other is Dr. Lester I. Tenney, a World War II veteran, survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March and former prisoner of war of the Japanese military. Their paths would cross seven years ago when Lester was told that he had only one year to live.

Michael A. Mussallem (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences) and Dr. Lester Tenney
Michael A. Mussallem (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences) and Dr. Lester Tenney

Edwards Lifesciences in Irvine

Edwards Lifesciences (NYSE: EW) is a medical technology company headquartered in Irvine specializing in heart valves and monitoring devices for the circulatory system. Edwards takes its namesake from engineer Miles “Lowell” Edwards who became interested in healing the human heart due to his own childhood experience with rheumatic fever which can cause scaring of heart valves and heart failure. 1)http://www.edwards.com/aboutus/OurHistory

We have the privilege on a regular basis to meet many remarkable patients whose lives have been saved and improved as a result of their treatment with one of our therapies, and it is our single greatest motivation and inspiration at Edwards. – Mike Mussallem, CEO of Edwards Lifesciences

He teamed up with Dr. Albert Starr and developed the first known successful mechanical heart valve ever implanted into a human patient. Edwards founded Edwards Laboratories in Santa Ana, California. Following restructuring, Edwards Lifesciences spun off and became an independent and publicly traded company in 2000. Today, one of the company’s most notable technological innovations is their transcatheter aortic heart valve.  2)http://www.edwards.com/aboutus/OurHistory

Lester Tenney, a WWII Veteran Receives Edwards’ Transcatheter Aortic Heart Valve

During World War II, Lester served in the US Army in the 192nd Tank Battalion. In the spring of 1942, following what would be one of the largest surrenders in US military history; Lester was captured in the Philippines by the Japanese Imperial Army. He was forced to walk the Bataan Death March and put to work as a slave laborer until he was liberated in 1945.

Lester Tenney in Fort Knox in June of 1941 (Photo courtesy of Lester Tenney)
Lester Tenney in Fort Knox in June of 1941 (Photo courtesy of Lester Tenney)

In his 1995 memoir, My Hitch in Hell, Lester recounts his harrowing story of surviving the Bataan Death March and then being sent to Japan to work as a slave laborer for a Mitsui coal mine. More recently, he wrote The Courage to Remember, a book on how he was able to overcome his post traumatic stress syndrome from his wartime experiences. In his book, he says that he found peace by letting go of bitterness and hatred. He concludes that the act of forgiving others was a gift he gave to himself. “Because of forgiveness, I am a prisoner no more.” wrote Lester.

In 2009, decades after his liberation, Lester was invited to lead a delegation of former POWs to Japan to receive a long-awaited apology from the Japanese government for the inhumane treatment they suffered during World War II. But at 90 years old, Lester’s health was failing.

Lester’s cardiologist told him that he needed a new aortic heart valve but because of his age, he was not a candidate for invasive open heart surgery. He was told if they did nothing, he would have maybe one year to live. Unable to accept this prognosis, Lester began researching less invasive treatment options.

I feel my life was saved by entering the Heart Valve Trial of Edwards Lifesciences. I was very lucky to have found them when I did. Thank you Edwards for these seven extra years. – Lester Tenney

“I believe strongly that we must be in charge of our own body. We can’t go through life giving that responsibility to someone else just because he or she is a medical doctor. We must be a part of the team that takes care of us. In fact, we are the most important piece of this puzzle.” says Lester.

He found out that Scripps, a hospital near his home in San Diego, was conducting a new clinical trial of the Edwards transcatheter aortic heart valve replacement (“TAVR”) treatment. Using this method, a patient is able to receive a new heart valve via a catheter instead of by open heart surgery. In the spring of 2010, Lester became a member of the clinical trial and received an Edwards heart valve. Today, the TAVR treatment has become a widely available option for patients needing an aortic heart valve replacement.

Just months after this life saving procedure, Lester traveled to Japan and received an official apology from then Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada. Looking back, Lester says “I picked up seven years that I never would have had.”

Patient and Innovation Focused Culture at Edwards

What does it take for a company to achieve breakthrough therapies for patients such as the TAVR? CEO Mike Mussallem says you have to accept the very real risk of failure on the path to success.

You once said, “I think if you really want to be an innovator in this world, you need to have the willingness to reach and the willingness to fail.” How has this philosophy helped Edwards reach for new breakthroughs in medical technology?

Mike: The recognition that we need to reach and be willing to fail comes from our patient- and innovation-focused culture at Edwards. We became an independent company 16 years ago because we wanted to be able to innovate more quickly and effectively for patients, and invest more resources in research and development.

Edwards Lifesciences headquarters in Irvine, California(Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)
Edwards Lifesciences headquarters in Irvine, California (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)

Whenever we do bold things and pursue truly breakthrough therapies for patients, the opportunity for failure is real and we need to be able to tolerate failure. Only in failure can we learn and find the answers to the big healthcare challenges that we pursue.  We embrace a “shots on goal” mentality as we innovate, which means that we’re going to have some misses on our way to success. We know that when we keep our focus on patients, and partner with clinicians to address the unmet needs of their patients, we will drive meaningful change together.

Setting aside the medical technology aspect of Edwards for a moment, when people think about the word “heart,” it’s a very symbolic word. Expressions like “heart’s content,” “heart and soul” and “young at heart” come to mind. What does this mean to you and to Edwards to specialize in healing the human heart?

Mike: Our work at Edwards is personal. We have the opportunity to touch the lives of individuals all over the world with the work that we do. This means that people like Lester have the chance to fulfill a lifelong goal.

Lester speaks at Edwards headquarters in Irvine on Patient Day in 2015 (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)
Lester speaks at Edwards headquarters in Irvine on Patient Day in 2015 (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)

It is an honor and a great responsibility to create, hand-assemble and provide heart valves to people all around the world to save and sustain lives. We spend every day looking for answers to how we can better treat patients with heart valve disease and address unmet patient needs. Our 13,000 global employees are focused on patients first, and we come to work every day knowing that helping patients is our life’s work, and life is now.

It was Edwards’ transcatheter aortic heart valve technology that enabled Lester to travel to Japan to receive a long-awaited apology. You once said, “[o]ur work is personal, and it impacts people individually.” To ask the opposite question, how do patients like Lester impact you in a personal way?

Mike: Lester is an amazing person and an inspiration to me personally, and to many at Edwards. I’ve had the honor to spend time with Lester and his wife, Betty, and it is a privilege to know them. This is a man who persevered in conditions that few people ever face, and even fewer could survive. Lester had incomparable mental and physical strength – yet decades later, he found his life threatened by a heart valve disease that could be solved by new technology, if he could get access to it.

Mike visits Lester at his home (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)
Mike visits Lester at his home (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)

It’s humbling to know that our transcatheter aortic heart valve was able to restore his health, and enable him to travel to Japan to receive an apology for WWII veterans for the tragedies they suffered during the war.

 We have the privilege on a regular basis to meet many remarkable patients whose lives have been saved and improved as a result of their treatment with one of our therapies, and it is our single greatest motivation and inspiration at Edwards. I have photos of many of these individuals on my shelf in my office, and we have many more lining the halls of our offices at Edwards, to remind us all daily of the reason for the work we are doing.

Lester and his wife, Betty
Lester and his wife, Betty

“I feel my life was saved by entering the Heart Valve Trial of Edwards Lifesciences. I was very lucky to have found them when I did. Thank you Edwards for these seven extra years.” says Lester, a member of our greatest generation.

Editor’s note: Lester passed away on February 24, 2017 in Carlsbad, California at the age of 96.  Read his obituary on the NY Times here.

To learn more about Edwards Lifesciences, visit: www.edwards.com

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References   [ + ]

1, 2. http://www.edwards.com/aboutus/OurHistory
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