Pamela Thomas had always received a perfect bill of health. At six feet, and 140 pounds, she worked out six days a week—a regimen that included weight training, yoga, and Pilates—and ate a vegetarian diet. To physicians and lay people alike, she didn’t fit the stereotype of someone with heart disease.
But at age 38, Thomas’ life changed. She became one of roughly 5.5 million Americans diagnosed with congestive heart failure (CHF), a cardiovascular condition in which the heart can no longer pump enough blood to the body. Thomas was born with an enlarged heart that never gave her trouble but last fall, she remembers severe swelling of her legs, feet, and abdomen that prompted her to see a doctor. During the visit, her primary physician dismissed her symptoms, telling her that she didn’t look like a candidate for heart problems and to come back if symptoms persist. “I cried all the way back to my office. I felt, at that point, nothing was solved.”
At that point, Thomas began tracking her condition by creating a photo diary of her body. “I would walk out of my house at 140 pounds and come in again at 170,” she says of the swelling. “I started feeling heaviness in my heart. It felt like a board was on my heart.”
Nearly a month later, her primary doctor finally suggested she see a cardiologist. Tests revealed that two liters of fluid had built up around her heart, and she was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. Within the past year, Thomas has undergone three major operations to repair her damaged heart. The first procedure to remove the fluid around her heart was done by a inserting a needle in the chest. Two weeks later, the fluid came back. The second procedure, called pericardial windows, required a surgeon to open her chest and insert tubes to drain the fluid. The procedure was successful and fluid hasn’t returned. In the third procedure a surgeon used a robot to repair her heart valves and an atrial septal defect, which is a hole in the heart. Thomas also takes medication for a condition called atrial fibrillation, a disorder in which the heart doesn’t pump at a normal rate. For an adult, a normal resting heart rate ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm). For a well-trained athlete, a normal resting heart rate may be as low as 40 to 60 bpm. “My exertion level is completely different now. Any type of stress, I feel now,” says Thomas. “Now I feel it on my heart. I physically feel it.”
Thomas’ condition is just one example among many different types of life-threatening cardiovascular diseases (CVD). In fact, an estimated 80 million Americans—one in three adults—are afflicted with one or more types of CVD, considered the No. 1 killer of men and women worldwide. The condition is often used interchangeably with “heart disease,” a range of ailments that affect your heart including blocked blood vessels that can result in a heart attack, stroke, or chest pain (angina). Other maladies that also fall into this category include ailments related to blood vessels such as coronary artery disease, heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias), and congenital heart defects.