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Heart health — How vigilance and persistence can be key to saving your life

Pam Morris-Walton, WVON gospel show host, underwent a successful heart transplant. She thanks a higher power for saving her life: "God is great."| Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

Two Chicago-area survivors of major heart scares say you must be relentless in getting answers and treatment when you feel badly. It will save your life.

Pam Morris-Walton, a South Sider who hosts a Sunday gospel show on WVON Radio, became the fourth person and the first woman in the United States to be attached to a device that kept her blood circulating while she awaited a heart transplant.

The device — the NuPulse CV pump — was the brainchild of Valluvan Jeevanandam, the University of Chicago Medical Center’s chief of cardiac and thoracic surgery.Morris-Walton’s heart failure diagnosis two years ago came as a complete surprise and followed by four months another cardiologist prescribing her medicine for congestive heart failure.

“I’d never been sick in my life,” she said. “I thought I had a cold. … I found it difficult to breathe.”

The medicine did no good, and Morris-Walton ended up with advanced heart failure that couldn’t be corrected with a stent or a pacemaker.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Morris-Walton, who retired in 2009 as the city’s project coordinator for Gospel Music festival.
The University of Chicago doctors figured out that Morris-Walton had contracted a virus during her frequent airplane flights that had traveled from her lungs to her heart and weakened her heart muscle.

More than 6 million Americans live with chronic heart failure, with 670,000 new diagnoses each year. February has been designated American Heart Month by the American Heart Association.

Morris-Walton waited just 27 days for a heart donor.

“I am a living, walking miracle,” she said.

Vietnam War veteran Lou Rodriguez’s need for a triple bypass came as a similar surprise.

Lou Rodriguez says he never had chest pains, and no one in his family had any kind of heart complications. But his persistence lead doctors to discover he suffered from blocked arteries. | PROVIDED PHOTO

He never had chest pains, and no one in his family had any kind of heart complications. Yet, four years ago, he started feeling an exhaustion that sleep didn’t cure.

“I was run down all the time,” said Rodriguez, a 68-year-old Berkeley resident and retired trustee who survived Naval Aviation war skirmishes in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam in the early 1970s. Rodriguez had always gotten regular physical checkups and had his Type 2 diabetes under control, yet he couldn’t shake the problem.

After an EKG, blood work and enzyme and stress tests gave him a clean bill of health, Rodriguez kept pushing to get an answer.

“I held my ground, insisting something must be wrong considering my abnormal tiredness and moods,” he said.

So doctors performed an angiogram, and discovered Rodriguez had three arteries blocked up to 98 percent.

He, like Morris-Walton, feels blessed to be alive and well, and he credits Hines Veterans Administration Hospital for his excellent care. Rodriguez is back to sailing relief missions with the International Rescue Group. He believes his wartime exposure to chemical agents was a factor in his heart-health emergency.

Rodriguez and Morris-Walton also shared a tremendous impatience with being unable to drive for several weeks after their surgeries, reflecting their take-charge personalities. In fact, Rodriguez said taking charge to one’s health is key.

“You’re the only one who can fight for you,” he said.

Another silent threat that a Chicago doctor has uncovered recently involves heart failure in women who’ve just given birth. Mulubrham Mogos, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Nursing, led research that found 60 percent of women who had heart failure during pregnancy did so after their baby’s birth.

The finding surprised Mogos, especially since the women were seeing their doctors regularly.

He sees the finding as an opportunity for clinicians to tell new mothers who have high blood pressure or preclampsia, which is characterized by high blood pressure and damage to another organ such as the liver or kidneys, to see their primary care doctors after they have the baby.

That’s an often-overlooked extra step when the family is celebrating the birth, he said.

“We need to take extra caution when these new mothers are discharged,” Mogos said, “to make sure they’re not showing signs and symptoms of heart failure.”

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.