Diagnosis and Initial TreatmentSharon and her husband were on vacation when she was very short of breath and could not keep up with the group hiking uphill. She dismissed it as being around 50 and out-of-shape, but her husband insisted she visit the doctor when they returned. Good thing she did: she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
When Sharon and her husband returned from the trip, she visited her primary care doctor and let him know that she would get out of breath from walking across the yard. He ordered an electrocardiogram (EKG) and some other tests, and referred Sharon to a cardiologist. An electrocardiogram is a medical test that measures the electrical signals in the heart. If the heart is not working normally, the electrical signals will often show an abnormal pattern.
The cardiologist did a second EKG to double check and then told Sharon to get an echocardiogram, or echo, immediately. An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart to see how the heart is doing. The cardiology office staff found another patient had canceled their appointment, so Sharon was able to get an echo the same day. Despite this urgency, Sharon says she “still didn’t have a clue at that point” that she had anything actually wrong with her heart.
After the echo, the cardiologist came to talk with to her and her husband with a pamphlet about congestive heart failure. Sharon refused to accept it: her mother had died from it, and she did not consider herself to be in the same shape her mother had been in.
The diagnosis was also a surprise as Sharon didn’t have any of the common causes: she had never smoked, had a childhood disease with a high fever, or any of the other things the cardiologist asked her. Sharon’s heart team finally concluded that she must have been born with issues, as most people with congestive heart failure are either long-term smokers (like Sharon’s mom) or are heavy drinkers. Sharon was put on medication, and she was surprised to learn that she would continue on it for the rest of her life.
PacemakerAfter giving the medicine time to do its job, her heart still wasn’t pumping normally. At a follow-up appointment, Sharon was told she would need to have a pacemaker. Leaving the office, she was “a total wreck” because she didn’t think she knew anyone with a pacemaker, and she associated it only with elderly people.
When she started telling friends and family that she would need to get a pacemaker, she heard numerous stories of friends or their family members getting a pacemaker and how much they loved the devices because their health improved so much. Sharon found these first-hand accounts tremendously valuable.
Sharon talked with the Bon Secours cardiac surgeon and set the date, and finally got a pacemaker and defibrillator. A pacemaker generates electrical signals to help keep the heart beating regularly and a defibrillator restarts a heart that has stopped; currently many implanted devices do both. Once she recovered from the surgery itself, which took a while, she started to feel better because her heart was, thanks to the pacemaker, able to pump more normally.
Sharon wants to share her story with others so they know what getting a pacemaker is like. You won’t feel terrific immediately because it takes a little while to get over, just like any surgery, but once she was healed she never thinks about her pacemaker anymore except when it is time for a checkup. She feels like she did well before her heart started to fail, and her life has improved.
“Don’t worry [about the pacemaker]; just get a good cardiologist.”