About The Heart And Heart Failure
One of the first things people have asked me is “did you have a heart attack?” What I have come to understand is that answer is no. Typically, a heart attack is related to blockages of the coronary arteries and what I have experienced is heart failure.
What is heart failure?
It essentially means that your heart is not pumping enough blood to meet your body’s needs. It does not mean that you are about to die or that your heart has stopped, just that your heart is not working quite the way it should. The term “congestive heart failure” means that your heart’s decreased ability to pump blood is accompanied by excess fluid in the lungs.
Heart failure also affects the kidneys’ ability to get rid of sodium and water. This excess water can cause swelling in your feet, ankles and legs and that extra fluid just makes it harder for your heart to work – not a good combination. This is why people with heart failure need to be on a strict low-sodium and low-fluid diet. This is also why in my case I was feeling pain in my stomach prior to treatment as I was dealing with extra fluid backing up from my weak heart into other parts of my body.
A healthy heart is strong enough to pump blood out of the heart so it does not back up into the lungs and veins. A damaged heart causes slower blood flow to the body and can enable this back up to happen. When this happens, the heart may enlarge to let in more blood and it may also enlarge its muscle to beat with more force. This natural process can help in the early stages, but can become a vicious cycle where over time it can actually make things worse.
One of the terms associated with this is called “ejection fraction” or EF, which essentially means the force at which your heart is pumping out the blood. I was told that a normal heart will have an EF in the range of 50-70% +. In my case when I first landed in the hospital, I was at 10-15%. This is a key factor that will be monitored in my recovery and will hopefully improve through my treatment. This takes time and is obviously different for every individual.
What are some of the common symptoms of heart failure?
So, how is heart failure treated?
Well, in my case where they did not determine other know issues to correct (such as a specific virus), the treatment is focused on a combination of special heart medication, time to heal and by following a heart-healthy routine. The medicine can help make it easier for your heart to pump, strengthen the heartbeat and remove excess fluid from the body. It can also be used to improve the quality of life when used as directed.
These heart medications include the following key categories:
As I noted above, the medication is only part of the program and it is up to the individual to follow a more heart-healthy routine. I will cover this routine as part of what I call “The New Normal”. Everything works together and each individual will respond differently based on their own situation.
Other sources for information:
The American Heart Association
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Information Center
How To Move On
Living with A New Heart Post-Transplant
Coming soon ...
Living with Heart Failure (My experience from 2010 - Oct. 2014)
The term New Normal is widely used for people having to live with any number of individual challenges and one of my many nurses used this phrase as we were discussing what happens going forward as I was dealing with heart failure. It was my new focus as I began my initial recovery and started a heart-healthy routine - not a bad strategy regardless of your medical condition.
There are several key components to this New Normal including:
The Low-Sodium Diet
This is one that I am just at the start of figuring out, but I can tell you that sodium is everywhere and you would be surprised how much you consume on a daily basis if you just stop and take a look. The obvious ones are easy like salted pretzels and chips…but think bread, sauces, dressings, what you drink, anything in a can, spices and the list goes on.
My sodium limit is actually pretty reasonable at 2000 mg per day and really the lower the better. I suggest taking a look at what you eat in any given day and really understand how much sodium you are eating – you will be amazed at how quickly it adds up from just normal everyday food. I am keeping a log of what I eat and have never done that before – that one is an eye-opener too!
The good news is that there are plenty of low-sodium options out there and you can find a way to make it work without too much work, but it does take effort. I will be updating this section further as I get more up-to-speed and will also share what I have found to work and perhaps even some recipes.
The Low-Fluid Diet
This one is pretty simple. Don’t drink too much liquid. The challenge is to balance good old water with other liquids like juices, tea, coffee, lemonade, etc. You want to keep a balance for water and you also want to space out your fluid intake over the day.
To put it in perspective, a single standard bottle of water is 500 ml – so I have the equivalent of 4 bottles or 2000 ml per day to manage to. In addition, I have to keep track of the sodium level in my non-water liquids – but for the most part that is easy. I love orange juice and it has zero sodium!
An Appropriate Exercise Program
This will clearly be different for every individual and be based on their own situation. The key I’m told is that appropriate exercise is now encouraged as your heart and body can manage. Exercise will help strengthen the heart and keep you in shape – keeping your weight in check is critical to a healthier productive life.
My main exercise program is currently walking and will evolve over time as I continue to improve. The goal is to keep active while not pushing too hard too fast. My doctors want to keep my heart rate in check while exercising and that is why one of my first new purchases was a Sportline Duo heart monitor. It is pretty cool where you just strap on the monitor around your chest and the heart rate displays on a sport watch that you wear on your wrist (no wires). Now I can pace myself appropriately and also keep track of other stats on the sports watch (once I figure out all the functions).
As a former college soccer athlete, I have done my share of running and training so my challenge is to manage myself not to go too hard and listen to my body. Our dog also loves this part of my program for sure!
Keeping a Positive Attitude and Outlook
People who know me are aware that I have always had a positive attitude, but this is more important than ever as depression is very common among people dealing with heart failure – and for obvious reasons. There are many ways to accomplish this and many are very personal.
A big reason why I created this website falls in this category and it allows me to share my story and not be ashamed or upset about what happened. For me, it helps to deal with things head-on and while that may not work for everyone, it is part of the way I am and the way I will always be.
A healthy mind, spirit, attitude and outlook are supported by my family & friends, faith and newfound appreciation for life and happiness.
Monitoring My Weight and Blood Pressure Daily
This one is easy, but very critical. One of the earliest signs of heart failure is rapid weight gain and that often comes before other more obvious symptoms (like shortness of breath). Without taking on excess fluid, the body can’t easily gain weight, so monitoring my weight is all about making sure I do not have a weight increase of 2 lbs for 2 days in a row.
Another early sign of heart failure is swelling in the feet, ankles and legs – again related to fluid which would be first detected by quick weight gain.
Another one of my first purchases was a home blood pressure monitor so I can take and measure my BP daily. I do this in the morning right after my weigh-in and the key is to take it at a consistent time each day for my log. I can also use the BP monitor to check myself periodically should I feel the need or experience any other symptoms – it is really nice to have.
Those are the core components of the New Normal and as I am early in my process as I write this, I fully expect to expand and build upon this new heart-healthy routine. It is a challenge that will take time and will require diligence and discipline…I welcome the challenge and am glad to be here to take it on!