Bill Paxton was one of those versatile actors who had always just been around for us. When his unexpected death at 61 was recently announced, I heard reactions such as: “Oh, I loved him in True Lies” and “He was in Apollo 13, right?” My immediate thoughts turned to Titanic (yes, I’m a girl – I saw it in the theater three times), and to the quirky explorer played by Paxton, attempting to recover the remains of the sunken vessel while understanding the stories of those who had perished. He has existed in my memory as a youthful individual, perhaps because he is frozen in time in that role for me. Film does that. It prevents us from believing that aging occurs, and yet it still does behind the scenes.
According to mainstream media sources, Paxton had rheumatic heart disease, and underwent surgical replacement of one of his heart valves on February 14, 2017. First lesson in this story: the reason for treating strep infections of the throat (strep pharyngitis) with antibiotics is not necessarily only to prevent the infection from worsening, but more so to eradicate the infection so that a more serious problem involving the immune system does not develop later. Following strep infections, the immune system can mount an inflammatory response, which can then result in an immune attack on the valves of the heart. The inflammatory state is known as rheumatic fever, and the valve injury is known as rheumatic heart disease. Eventually, many patients end up having surgery to replace defective heart valves years after their initial encounter with rheumatic heart disease.
Following his heart surgery, Paxton had a stroke. In one study published in December 2016, after data from 21,821 patients having undergone mitral valve surgery was analyzed, it was found that 3.89% of them experienced strokes soon after the procedure. The risk seems to be slightly lower in those undergoing aortic valve replacement. The truth is, however, that general anesthesia alone carries a risk of stroke, even when the heart is not the target for surgery. Blood pressure decreases under anesthesia, which can result in difficulties getting blood flow through tight areas where plaque build up may be present. Short-lived irregular heart rhythms that can generate blood clots, such as atrial fibrillation, are not uncommon during or following surgery. Procedures involving catheters (wires inserted into blood vessels) can cause stroke if plaque is “knocked loose” by the wire, or if clot forms at the tip of the wire.
Paxton’s death brings further awareness that, while we attempt to keep procedural risks as low as possible, surgery does carry the risk of stroke. The desire is for the potential benefit of surgery to outweigh the risks involved, or else the surgery should not take place. Risk assessment is a game of odds, and hoping that patients will land on the more favorable side of the equation.
Rest in peace, Bill.