Heart failure patient is thriving after taking doctors advice to heart
Interventional cardiologist sets the record straight on living with heart failure.
ELIZABETHTOWN, KY (Feb. 22, 2023) – George Wallace noticed he had been short of breath lately – so short of breath, that it had become a tiring chore just to put on his socks and shoes each morning. But one December morning in 2018, the feeling was more intense, and he decided to drive himself to Baptist Health Hardin to seek emergency medical care.
“I did not catch my breath from Brandenburg to Elizabethtown,” said Wallace. “When I got there, I didn’t know if I could make it to the door.” Fortunately for Wallace, help was not far away. He was able to get inside quickly and tell staff what was wrong.
Upon arrival at the Emergency Department at Baptist Health Hardin, Wallace’s blood pressure was 253/178, a dangerous number compared to the normal 120/80. He remembered receiving oxygen, steroids, and having several tests performed. He remembered his care team being surprised that he was able to drive the 30 miles from Brandenburg to Elizabethtown in his current condition. They told him he was lucky he did not suffer a stroke.
“What Mr. Wallace experienced is a typical scenario of heart failure,” said Prabodh Mehta, MD, an interventional cardiologist with Baptist Health Heart Failure Clinic in Elizabethtown, and Wallace’s healthcare provider. Dr. Mehta explained that heart failure is misunderstood as a complete failure of the heart’s functioning. With heart failure, the heart does not stop; it continues to beat, but not as well as it should.
Heart failure should not be confused with heart attack. According to Dr. Mehta, a heart attack is a condition where the heart and body are severely deprived of oxygen due to one or more clogged arteries. Heart failure, on the other hand, can occur because of a heart attack, or it can occur for other reasons such as enlargement of the heart, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, or any combination of these conditions. It can also occur because the heart muscle is weak, damaged, inflamed, or has stiffened. If the heart cannot beat as strongly as it needs to beat to deliver oxygen-rich blood to organs and tissues, the signs and symptoms of heart failure may present.
“What happens is at rest, you are fine, but when you are walking or exercising, the body doesn’t get enough oxygen, and so you huff and puff,” said Dr. Mehta. “You are trying to compensate by breathing even harder so it can get enough oxygen.” When this occurs, Dr. Mehta said people often slow down or stop life’s daily activities because they become more difficult.
“Patients don’t recognize heart failure because they are getting short of breath during regular activities. So, they restrict their activities, and they do less and less until the time comes when they can’t do the daily activities of living,” said Dr. Mehta. “That’s what heart failure is, because the body is not able to deliver enough oxygen and nutrients.”
Dr. Mehta said that Wallace was in acute heart failure when he arrived at Baptist Health Hardin, and he attributed it to Wallace not taking the best care of himself. “He had high blood pressure for a long time. He had become overweight, and the heart pumped blood at such a high pressure to keep up.”
Wallace, who was then 64, had been smoking two packs a day for more than 40 years. He had tried to quit unsuccessfully several times. He was also carrying too much weight. He was living a lifestyle that had finally caught up with him, as he was beginning to realize how difficult everyday activities had become. “The number one thing was shortness of breath and the time it took me to do normal things was a lot longer,” Wallace said. “Just putting on my shoes and socks was taking forever.”
A staunch advocate of patient education, Dr. Mehta gave Wallace the facts about heart failure. “I started off by explaining to him his condition…75% of patients die within five years if they don’t take care of themselves.” Dr. Mehta encouraged him to change his diet, start exercising, take his medications regularly, and stop smoking.
Wallace’s health condition was a wake-up call. He took to heart the advice given by his cardiologist. “I told Dr. Mehta I was going to be the best patient he ever had. I made up my mind that I was going to get better, or I was going to die,” said Wallace. He committed to life changes – kicking the smoking habit, eating better, and participating in cardiac therapy at the hospital. Therapy proved so helpful, that he opted to continue treatment at his own expense after his insurance limitations were reached.
He also discovered walking, which would become a routine part of his new life. Wallace began walking daily at Brandenburg’s Buttermilk Falls. Each morning, he would visit the trail and walk three miles, taking breaks as needed. He was determined to lose weight, get in better shape, and restore his heart to better health. As his strength and endurance increased, Wallace walked the trail twice a day – and he continued to go to cardiac therapy.
Dr. Mehta’s plan for Wallace mirrors the advice he gives to all heart failure patients. “First of all, stop smoking. It’s the single most important thing. People don’t realize how much smoking affects your heart. As little as two cigarettes per day increases the risk of heart attack by three times.” He also issues a word of caution about the dangers of secondhand smoke.
A healthy diet is extremely important. Dr. Mehta suggests a diet that is “High in multi-grains, olive oil and low in carbs – the usual Mediterranean diet is the best thing you can do for yourself.” He also suggests limiting the use of salt.
Exercise is critical to heart health and overall health and can aid in efforts to lose weight. Dr. Mehta recommends exercising 30 minutes per day, five days per week. He adds that, “Walking the dog is not enough.” The exercise should be sustained, and enough to make you sweat.
He acknowledges that getting healthier is not always easy for people, especially when it comes to weight loss, but he encourages patients to keep trying even when their attempts are not successful. “Don’t’ give up just because you fall backward. You lost 20 pounds and then you gain ten. Don’t lose heart. Keep trying.”
Wallace has praised Dr. Mehta for his support and guidance and the cardiac therapy team at Baptist Health Hardin, whom he calls his “living angels.” He understands he is not at the finish line with heart failure, and that he must continue on the path to better health. He has received good reports on his follow-up visits. The swelling in his heart has gone down. His ejection fraction, a measure of how well the heart pumps blood, had been very low. Though it has not reached normal numbers yet, over time, it has significantly improved. He has committed to losing the weight. So far, his commitment has paid off. He has lost just over 70 pounds and hopes to lose another 50.
“Mr. Wallace has tremendously benefited from losing weight. He is a model patient, and he does what he’s told.”
Wallace is proud of the progress he has made, and grateful that Dr. Mehta has been there for him throughout his heart failure journey. He hopes that his story inspires others to improve their health and make changes while they can. “Just make it your job. Especially if you are retired – just make it your job. Just like you used to go to work every day…It’s very simple. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.”