Eleven years after being told she had seven to 10 years to live, Sharon Volkman, 60, is healthy and active thanks to a second opinion she received at National Jewish Health.
While on a trip to Yellowstone in 2000, Sharon began experiencing shortness of breath and exhaustion. She and her husband cut their vacation short and returned to their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sharon’s primary care doctor referred her to a local pulmonologist, who diagnosed Sharon with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and told her that she would likely die of the disease within seven to 10 years.
Sharon, who also has bipolar disorder, went into a tailspin of depression. Her emotions surrounding the diagnosis were exaggerated by the bipolar disorder. “I shut down,” said Sharon. “I gave up on everything and deliberately pushed people away because I knew I wasn’t going to live.”
She found solace in food, and didn’t worry about the consequences of overeating. Combined with the side effects of the medications she was taking, Sharon gained more than 100 pounds and developed gout, high cholesterol and diabetes.
In 2008, two things happened that would change Sharon’s life. She decided to lose weight because she did not like how she looked, and she began seeing a new pulmonologist.
Her new doctor in Albuquerque looked at Sharon’s records and x-rays and told her that he did not think she had IPF. He recommended that she come to National Jewish Health for a definitive diagnosis.
Sharon is one of thousands of patients who are referred to National Jewish Health each year because of our expertise and unique approaches to treatment of respiratory, cardiac and immune diseases.
She came to National Jewish Health for a week in November 2008 and underwent a battery of tests. Evans Fernandez Perez, MD, MSc, led Sharon’s care at National Jewish Health.
“Coming to National Jewish was the best decision I have ever made,” said Sharon. “It was truly a partnership between the three of us – me, my husband and the team at National Jewish.”
She will never forget when Dr. Fernandez Perez told her she did not have IPF, and she was not going to die. He diagnosed Sharon with bronchiolitis, an inflammatory obstruction of the lung’s tiniest airways called bronchioles. It took Sharon six months to come to terms with her new diagnosis. “You want to believe it, but you can’t. You are afraid to believe it,” she said.
Dr. Fernandez Perez and Sharon’s pulmonologist in Albuquerque told her that it was critical to her health that she exercise. “I was an avid exercise hater. They encouraged me to do what I could, little by little,” she said. “They told me to start walking to the end of the block until I could build myself up to more strenuous workouts.”
Since receiving her new diagnosis, Sharon is now an exercise lover. She works out three times a week and walks one to four miles a day. Sharon has lost 85 pounds and 54 inches from her chest, arms, thighs, waist and abdomen, with plans to lose 50 more pounds through continued exercise and healthy eating. She no longer needs oxygen, her diabetes and cholesterol have improved, and she was able to give up her handicap parking placard.
“You have these little ‘aha’ moments,” said Sharon. “I can bend down to garden again, and most importantly, I can pick up my grandson now.”
Sharon, who is a writer, regained her confidence. She began writing again and recently attended a writer’s conference in New York. “At National Jewish Health, they told me to walk with my head up to help me breathe better. Now I walk with my head held high, and I can see the beauty of the world around me.”
She is looking forward to her final appointment with her pulmonologist in Albuquerque, and she recommends National Jewish Health to everyone she meets. “If you have a respiratory condition, make sure your hometown doctor knows about National Jewish Health.”
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