Living with Heart Failure: Read Ann Marie's Story
“Education is one of the greatest assets to someone with heart failure.” – Donald Haas, MD
Fully understanding heart failure can be a challenge. In a nutshell, heart failure happens when the heart is failing to circulate blood appropriately. Though it may seem simple, the complexity of heart failure lies in learning how to live with the condition.
Typically, heart failure symptoms include an unusual shortness of breath – particularly after mild exertion or lying flat – and swelling, mostly in the legs and ankles. Heart failure also can lead to fluid congestion and shock, causing organ failure.
Although heart failure is most often diagnosed in people aged 65 and over, it can affect anyone. “Some individuals have a strong heart that doesn’t relax properly, while others have weakened hearts that don’t squeeze properly,” explains Donald Haas, MD, MPH, FACC, who is helping to coordinate RWJ Hamilton’s new Heart Failure Program.
When it comes to living with heart failure, Ann Marie Larkin has plenty of experience. In 1990, at the age of 25, Ann Marie was diagnosed with a rare type of heart failure called peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM) shortly after the birth of her child.
Unlike more common heart conditions associated with pregnancy, like preeclampsia, the symptoms of PPCM do not go away with the birth of the child. In fact, PPCM develops in the last month of pregnancy or within the first five months after delivery.
By taking her medications, giving up cigarettes and following her physician’s advice, Ann Marie was able to live a relatively normal life for more than 16 years. About a year ago, however, Ann Marie was faced with other, unrelated medical conditions that left her weakened and her heart failure more severe.
Today, Ann Marie has stopped working, but continues to follow the advice of her physician, Donald Haas, MD, to maximize her quality of life. She enjoys spending time with her family and recently took a trip to Connecticut.
“I am careful to follow the directions I’ve been given on how much I can lift, activity I can do and what I eat and drink. I feel better when I stay within my limitations” says Ann Marie.
Causes & Treatment
The most common causes of heart failure are high blood pressure and coronary artery disease (CAD), which obstructs blood flow and restricts the delivery of oxygen to the heart.
Smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes are all risk factors for CAD. In addition to CAD, heart failure is caused by heart rhythm disturbances, diabetes, valvular heart disease, and primary cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle.
“The prognosis for heart failure can be very variable. Although we have prediction models, it can be difficult to determine how patients will respond to treatment,” says Dr. Haas.
Drug therapy has a central role in the treatment of heart failure. “Heart failure medications unquestionably prolong a patient’s life,” says Dr. Haas.
“When they are taken correctly and patients understand why they are taking them, it can help keep them out of the hospital.”
Learning to Live
Medication is only part of the equation. While it helps a patient to live longer, drug therapy doesn’t necessarily impact their quality of life. “Some patients become depressed or anxious because they’re living with a serious chronic condition, and they’re often unable to carry out activities of daily living,” says Dr. Haas.
This is where a strong understanding of their condition and how to live with it comes into play. “Education is one of the greatest assets to someone with heart failure,” explains Haas, who serves as director of the Heart Failure and Hypertension Program for Penn Cardiac Care at Mercer Bucks.
“When patients follow physician recommendations regarding diet, fluid intake, medication and exercise, it contributes to improving their quality of life – and that’s our goal,” he says.
Need a cardiologist? Call 609.584.5900 for a physician referral.