Congestive heart failure patient gets new lease on life
Lori Cooper has always appeared to be the picture of health. A trim, 40-something wife and mother of two, Cooper has been active all her life. She has a family history of heart disease and stroke, so she knows the importance of exercising every day and taking good care of herself.
But in August 2007, Cooper noticed she felt extra fatigued and sweaty after short daily walks or climbing the usual three flights of stairs to her office. There were other signs as well:
- a few pounds of weight gain
- persistent cough
- high resting heart rate
She blamed the symptoms on soaring summer temperatures and a recent lapse in her daily exercise routine. “But most importantly,” she says, “I was afraid.”
“On August 22, I had a routine appointment with my primary care physician. I told her about my symptoms, and she immediately ordered an electrocardiogram and lab work,” says Cooper. An electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) is a test to check the heart’s electrical activity. This electrical activity is what stimulates the heart to pump blood.
Cooper’s EKG came back abnormal.
“She told me not to exercise, walk up stairs or anything,” Cooper recalls, “just rest until the next day when an echocardiogram could be done.”
The echocardiogram is another heart test. It takes moving pictures of the heart using sound waves. This allows doctors to see how the heart is functioning: whether it’s enlarged, if there’s a fluid buildup, if blood is flowing properly and whether parts of the heart muscle are not pumping well.
She also said to go immediately to the emergency department if Cooper began feeling worse.
The following day, Cooper decided to go into the office anyway. While at work, she began feeling sweaty and clammy.
“My heart was beating out of control, and I started to feel an overwhelming lightheadedness,” says Cooper. “I knew at that point I was not well. My husband Dan took me to the emergency department at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center. We didn’t know at the time, but my time was running out.”
Pinpointing the cause
At the hospital, Cooper and her husband learned that she had congestive heart failure: Cooper’s heart was not able to pump enough blood to meet her body’s needs.
“I just sat there and stared at the ED doctor,” says Cooper. “My father had died of heart failure. All I could do was cry.”
Dr. Samir Shah, a cardiologist with Advocate Medical Group – Illinois Heart and Lung Associates, explained that Cooper’s heart was enlarged.
“All the valves were regurgitating blood,” Cooper recalls. “My heart and lungs had fluid all around them; I needed medications and additional testing to help; and later, if all of that didn’t help, I might need a heart transplant.”
Cooper’s heart also had a low ejection fraction, which measures the percentage of blood that gets pumped out with each heartbeat. Hers was 20 percent. A normal heart pumps 50 to 70 percent.
“A decrease in ejection fraction can be caused by several things,” Dr. Shah says. Causes include:
- Weakness in or damage to the heart muscle
- A problem with one of the heart’s valves
- Long-standing, uncontrolled high blood pressure, which can cause the heart to be overworked
“We can’t reverse many conditions that lead to heart failure,” Dr. Shah says, “but lifestyle changes, such as exercise, good diet and weight loss, along with medication, can improve quality and length of life.”
From Worrying to Fighting
Back at home Cooper worried constantly: “What if my heart stopped while I was sleeping? What if I didn’t make it to my next birthday? What if I missed my children growing up? My youngest wasn’t even in kindergarten yet. My oldest hadn’t even started driving.”
But those worries become her reasons to fight.
For the next six months, Cooper followed a no-salt diet and an aggressive drug regime. She slowly increased her walking every day. She even gave up caffeine. “When February 2008 arrived, I was nervous for the results of my follow-up echocardiogram,” Cooper says. “Dr. Shah and I were hoping for an increase of 5 percent in my ejection fraction.”
It improved from 20 percent to 50 percent. “I had a second chance,” Cooper says. Her August 2008 echocardiogram showed improvement to 55 percent.
Cooper will take medication for the rest of her life, but she will likely avoid a transplant or a defibrillator.
“I will continue to monitor my diet and exercise. Most importantly, I know the signs and symptoms of heart disease,” Cooper says, “and I will seek the help I need immediately if I ever experience them again.”
About the Author
health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.