Retired CSX conductor recently underwent a minimally invasive procedure to replace his mitral value.

A decade ago Sam Starling, now 80, underwent two open heart bypass surgeries in three days.

He spent three weeks in an induced coma. It was an unpleasant experience, one he never wanted to go through again.

So when he started experiencing shortness of breath it worried him. He couldn't walk his dog or walk to the mailbox.

His mitral valve needed to be replaced. But he knew he wouldn't survive another another open heart procedure. That's when his physician told him there was an alternative procedure available.

Ruby Satpathy, director of the structural heart program at Baptist Medical Center, has been using a minimally invasive technique to do replace worn out aortic valves. She was ready to begin using the same technique to replace mitral valves.

Starling became the first patient to undergo a transcatheter mitral valve replacment procedure at Baptist. Satpathy threaded a catheter through a vein in Starling's groin to put the new mitral valve in place.

He immediately began feeling better and went home after three days at Baptist.

"I'm a new man now," Starling said during an interview at his Westside home, conducted as his 22-month-old great grandson K.J. played nearby.

Growing up in Clay Hill, an unincorporated community in the northwest corner of Clay County, Starling became interested in railroading the first time he saw a steam engine.

Eventually he got the opportunity to spend a lot of time around trains. He spent more than 35 years working at what was Seaboard Coast Line railroad when he started and later became CSX.

His first 25 years was spent working at a freight yard in northwest Jacksonville where he uncoupled cars, bled brake lines and supervised switching crews.

But that job involved spending a lot of time on his feet. After he began having trouble with his knees, he became a conductor who worked on freight trains traveling between Savannah and Jacksonville.

In 2001, Starling retired so he could travel with his wife, Mary. She had retired from her job with the Yellow Pages, and a motor home in which she planned to do a lot of traveling.
"I loved my job but she didn't like hers," he said. "She loved to travel. She wanted to know what was over the next hill."

They traveled together widely, visiting Europe, Hawaii and Alaska, where they spent six months.

He's still got a motor home but he hasn't used it since his wife died in 2016.

Charlie Patton: (904) 359-4413