Reaching the Pressure Point
One night in December 2017, Gerald Short was sitting at home with his wife and started having a hard time catching his breath. “I just couldn’t breathe,” he said. “I couldn’t walk two steps without having to stop, rest and breathe really heavy.” Short was swiftly taken in an ambulance to his local hospital and put on high levels of oxygen.
His wife called his pulmonologist from National Jewish Health, James Woodrow, MD, to ask what to do. Dr. Woodrow told Short he needed to be transferred to Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver immediately so he could get the care he needed.
“I guess I was pretty sick, and I just didn’t realize it,” said Short. “I had some heart issues that were evidently serious at the time. Unknown to me.”
Short was struggling to breathe because he had large amounts of fluid putting pressure on his chest. The right side of his heart was enlarged and not working properly, and his heart rhythm had become irregular. Doctors were able to give Short medication to lower his blood pressure, but Short’s cardiologists decided they would need to shock his heart, hoping to stabilize its rhythm.
A Complicated Case
“He had a lot of things going on,” said Saint Joseph Hospital Interventional Cardiologist Jake Chanin, MD. “We were dealing with his atrial flutter, which is a rapid heart rhythm, dealing with pulmonary hypertension, heart failure and shortness of breath.”
For years, Short has been seen by his pulmonologist Dr. Woodrow for his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but it would not have caused his new symptoms. When Short’s lab results came back showing some pulmonary hypertension (PH), it would have been natural to relate it to his underlying lung disease. Dr. Woodrow, however, thought it seemed out of proportion and asked for additional tests.
Making the Right Call
“The real person who gets the gold star here is Dr. Woodrow because he thought about it and ordered a repeat echocardiogram,” said Pulmonary Hypertension Specialist Patricia George, MD. “If you look at his lung function test, Gerald has COPD. And while he had emphysema on his CT scan, his symptoms really seemed to be coming from pulmonary hypertension.”
PH occurs when there is high blood pressure in the arteries connecting the lungs to the right side of the heart. It often makes patients feel short of breath. It also can cause the heart rhythm to become irregular, the right ventricle to become enlarged and fluid to build up in the chest. It can be hard to diagnose because it often looks like other heart or lung conditions.
While there is no cure for PH, it is a treatable condition. Short now sees Dr. George regularly to manage his disease.
Beginning to Feel Better
“He is doing much better,” said Dr. George. “He’s walking farther and feeling much better. He’s had no more admissions to the hospital with heart failure.” Short’s breathing tests have significantly improved as well as his six-minute walk test, where he has nearly doubled his distance.
“I have to thank my wife for talking to Dr. Woodrow and getting me transferred,” said Short. “It’s sure nice to know that you have been to the specialists and that you are getting good care. It just makes you feel better.” Despite everything he’s been through, he called his time with Saint Joseph Hospital and National Jewish Health “nothing but a great experience.”