At 38, Barry Kirschner, a salesman living in Virginia Beach, Va., already has a surgically repaired heart. The amazing thing is what he doesn't have: a huge scar running down the center of his chest. "If I took my shirt off at the beach, you'd never know that I had heart surgery," he says.

He has only one reminder of his operation: a three-inch scar between two ribs on his right side. It doesn't look like much—the casual observer might guess that he had a run-in with a fence or a tree branch—but it's really a huge testament to the benefits of minimally invasive heart surgery, also known as beating heart surgery.

Kirschner was 30 when a routine stethoscope exam picked up strange sounds in his chest. A long-distance runner, kickboxer, skier, surfer (the list goes on), he had never had a hint of heart trouble. But an echocardiogram showed that his aortic valve had been deformed since birth, and now it was leaking. Suddenly the uberathlete had to face the prospect of heart surgery.

"My family and I decided to hold on as long as possible," Kirschner says. "We thought that maybe someday they'd be able to do the surgery without cutting my chest open."

By the time the leak grew too big to ignore, his plan turned out to be prophetic. Surgeons replaced his valve through a small incision in his side. Thin tubes equipped with tiny video cameras guided the surgeon's instruments.

Compared with the typical heart surgery patient, Kirschner had a lightning-fast recovery. "I was doing laps around the cardiac intensive care unit by the following day," he says. Two months after the operation, he says, he was "back to doing everything I used to do, and more. The only thing I had to give up is contact sports. No more kickboxing."

Minimally invasive surgery has become an increasingly popular option for all sorts of heart procedures, including bypass surgery. Unfortunately not all hospitals have the equipment or the staff to perform the procedures, and not all patients are eligible. Patients who have multiple blocked arteries or other complicated problems generally need traditional open-chest surgery. But for a patient needing a relatively simple procedure, minimally invasive techniques can repair the heart while minimizing recovery time.