Image: Former President George H.W. Bush listens
MICHAEL STRAVATO  /  AP
Former President George H.W. Bush listens to heart surgeon Dr. Gerald Lawrie during a news conference Thursday about former first lady Barbara Bush's open heart surgery.
updated 3/5/2009 6:41:45 PM ET 2009-03-05T23:41:45

George H.W. Bush saluted Houston surgeons and thanked his fellow presidents for their calls Thursday after former first lady Barbara Bush underwent successful open heart surgery to replace her aortic valve.

"I've been a nervous wreck about it," the former president said, choking back tears a day after his wife spent 2 1/2 hours getting a replacement valve from a pig at Houston's Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center.

Mrs. Bush, 83, was making "an excellent recovery" and was joking with hospital staff, said lead surgeon Gerald Lawrie. He called the surgery ordinary and not surprising since valves in people of her age are likely to deteriorate and require replacement or some other treatment.

"From our perspective, this was a very routine procedure and we expect her to make a full recovery," Lawrie said.

'It's scary'
The former president said he was reassured before the operation but never considered it routine "when you come in and put a pig's valve in your wife. It's scary. I didn't know anything about it."

"I've got to rank it up there as one of the more stressful" experiences in his life, he said, which include bailing out of a shot-up Navy plane in World War II besides his political career.

"I said: 'Oh my God.' But when you look at it realistically, ... the fact he's done so many of these successfully, that's very reassuring when you're a loving father, a loving husband."

Mrs. Bush was expected to remain in intensive care for another couple of days, then in general care at The Methodist Hospital for maybe a week. Bush got to see his wife shortly after she got out of surgery Wednesday morning.

"I don't remember any words," he said, calling himself "not the anecdotal" one in the family. "It was just the reunion of two people who love each other."

Bush said their oldest son, former president George W. Bush, had called Wednesday, and that President Barack Obama and ex-presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also called.

Bush said Obama told him he was thinking about Barbara "and wanted to send her love." Bush added that he thought it was "extraordinarily thoughtful" for Obama to call, "with all the things on his plate."

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Condition is common
Bush said he and his wife were advised about a week ago, after Mrs. Bush experienced shortness of breath, that the surgery should be performed soon.

Lawrie said the condition, a severe narrowing of the main valve, is common.

"Ten percent of people in their 70s are expected to need surgery," he said, describing a valve thinner than plastic wrap that breaks down and gets stiff after flexing 3 billion times.

"Eventually, it puts severe strain on the main pumping chamber of the heart and leads to fluid in the lungs and progressive deterioration," Lawrie said. "They do wear out when we get older."

Are you at risk of a heart attack?Before 1960, when the first surgeries to repair the condition were done, the ailment was fatal, he said.

He termed Mrs. Bush's condition as "diagnosed at a relatively early phase" but serious.

"A little congestion in the lungs drew attention to it," he said.

Bush, who apologized to reporters afterward for "getting emotional," said the use of a pig valve already had become somewhat of a joke within the Bush family.

"Oink, oink," he said.

Told family by e-mail
At his wife's insistence, the Bush children, four sons and a daughter, weren't told of her impending surgery but instead were informed by a mass family e-mail, he said.

"They all want to come," Bush said of their children. "I told them not to do it. Life is going to get back to normal pretty soon. She looks well to me, and beautiful."

Mrs. Bush is the mother of the 43rd president and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The other Bush children are sons Neil and Marvin and daughter Dorothy.

Barbara Bush underwent surgery in November for a perforated ulcer . The hospital said the two procedures were unrelated.

Mrs. Bush disclosed she was suffering from an overactive thyroid ailment known as Graves' disease when she lived at the White House. The disease causes teary eyes and double vision, according to her doctors.

More on Barbara Bush

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Video: Barbara Bush recovers from surgery

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