Congestive Heart Failure And Me

August 27, 2014 at 11:22 am (Congestive Heart Failure, Hospitalizations, Living With Chronic Illness, Medical, The Journey Towards Diagnosis) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I have been diagnosed with stage 3, right sided congestive heart failure. Let’s break that down so you understand what that means. Keep in mind, I’m not a doctor and this is by no means meant to be a completely scientific lesson on heart disease. I am sharing the information I feel will help my friends and family understand how this diagnosis affects me and what it means. Feel free to ask your doctor for more information.

I’m going to start with the “congestive heart failure” part. Your heart is a wickedly smart little organ. It knows exactly how much blood each of your organs needs to operate at their maximum. When one or more of the organs needs more blood, the heart is able to increase how fast it beats, pushing blood faster where it’s needed.

The first symptom I had was that my heart was beating pretty fast – upwards of 120bpm. Obviously, that can be caused by a lot of less serious reasons, so although it was something my doctor was aware of, it didn’t cause any alarm all by itself.

Meanwhile, my right ventricle, the one in charge of getting the right amount of blood to my lungs, thought something was up. It wasn’t getting as much fluid back as it was sending out, which is cause for concern when you’re a right ventricle. It assume that there has been some trauma or injury to the lungs wherein there is blood loss, so it wants to pump harder to make sure the wound doesn’t drain the blood the lungs still need to function.

But in my case, it was not a wound that was causing the lack of fluid return. My body was soaking it up, in the form of edema. That’s the reason my feet and ankles, and then eventually my abdomen, got really swollen. The reason my heart thoughts my lungs were in trouble is because my lungs were really struggling with keeping my oxygen levels high enough to function. The struggle was primarily caused by my sleep apnea – I was using a CPAP setting from 2005, and a lot has changed since then. I need a BiPAP in order to get the right amount of oxygen at night, and the more oxygen and the less carbon dioxide in my system, the less the demand on the right ventricle.

CPAP? BiPAP? Is this like a Pap smear?
No, thank goodness. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure is one way to make sure someone’s airway is open and functioning while they are asleep. If you’ve ever shared a bed with someone who snored terribly, that snore was likely caused because it was the only way to get the passages open enough to maintain enough oxygen. With a CPAP, it gently blows air into your nose (and mouth if necessary) to help keep the airway open.

With CPAP, there’s one number: the amount of air pressure the person needs to keep their passage open all night. However, if the person needs a very high amount of pressure, it becomes difficult to exhale without feeling like you have to use your exhale to push against it. What makes sense is to have two pressure settings: the higher one when you breathe in, and the lower one for when you breathe out. Thus: BiPAP. Bilevel positive airway pressure. BiPAP comes with a second usage, which is that it can also stand in as an external ventilator should someone have significant trouble breathing night *or* day.

I knew I needed a BiPAP for a few months, but I was dealing with a lot of doctor office monkeyshines and did not get it. But I will have one when I get home, as the hospital has taken care of that.

The Right Side of Heart Failure

Like I’ve said earlier, the right ventricle is specifically tasked with keeping the lungs happy. Because I was having severe O2 deprivation due to the apnea, my poor little right ventricle did all it could do. Now it is damaged from being overclocked for so long. Part of the reason it took so long to figure out what was going on is that the symptoms of heart failure are easily attributed to being fat, even if you aren’t really fat to begin with. CHF makes you feel tired all the time, it robs you of your stamina, you lose your breath even when you aren’t doing anything, and then the swelling comes. The edema is made worse when it gets to the abdomen, because then it is putting extra undue pressure on the diaphragm and lungs, making it even more difficult to breathe.

Although I am still a little angry about it, I have come to accept that even though I was clear with many doctors about these symptoms as soon as I noticed them, many of them dismissed me and told me it was because I was fat and I should reconsider weight loss surgery. (In case you weren’t a reader when I wrote my many rants on WLS, look at the tags on the side of this page for more info). I mean, my weight is a contributing factor (but not the only factor!) to my apnea, so in a way it is also a factor in my heart failure. But lots of people get CHF, and getting it at my age is getting more and more common.

What does this mean? Are you going to have to stop traveling/teaching?

Well, Del is going to have to get used to a daily regimen. Not only am I increasing the amount of prescriptions I need, but there are other changes I need to track carefully. I will have to weigh myself every single day (whee!) and do it in kilograms because metric! If I gain even a little bit of weight, I have to call my doctors ASAP to see if it’s related.

I am also going to have to learn how to live with strict fluid intake rules. I am only allowed to have 2000mg a day of any kind of fluid – that’s 2 liters. I have a plan on how to measure this, so hopefully that will work. I’m just from a world where drinking fluids was a good thing, and there was no such thing as too much water.

The reason I have to restrict my fluid intake is because should my body have extra fluid, it is likely going to shunt it into edema, because the right ventricle will be all like, “Hey feet, I got some extra fluid here, so I’m a hook you up!” and my feet will be like, “No, dude, we’re already super full! I’m sure your fluid is tasty but I can’t even imagine another…oh. Thanks.”

The last part I’ll tackle is the Stage 3. There are 4 stages, with 1 being asymptomatic and 4 being severely damaged and in need of interventions like surgical implants, surgery, or transplant if the patient is young enough to recover. 3 means that I have significant symptoms, but we’re hoping that with a minimum of intervention I should be okay for a while. But I’m going to give it to you straight – this is not a thing you take a pill, you stop eating salt, and everything gets better. This will degenerate and become more bothersome as time moves on. At some point, I plan on writing about how this diagnosis takes some of the vagueness out of “Del is sick”. The monster in the closet (or at least one of them) has a name, a face, a sense of reality.

Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below. Just please don’t break my rule of offering treatment options unless you are a professional. I don’t want to know what your Uncle Tommy did to recover from CHF, nor do I want to read that article you saw on how CHF is a made-up disease to sell cardio meds. But at the same time, I want to make sure everyone has a clear understanding of what’s going on with me and how it affects things moving forward.

*BONUS ROUND*

My blood sugar numbers were also wacky out on control when I got here, and I had a great endocrinologist who helped get me back to a normal-ish level. When talking about follow-up and finding the endo, I took a chance and mentioned that I was hoping to find an endo who would manage my diabetes *and* administer T. Without hesitation, he made me a recommendation to a Hopkins endo who does T for lots of different people. Even got me the number of the pysch I need to see for clearance before we can talk about T. He keeps reminding me that this is a maybe, not a yes, because I am so complicated; but he also said it may come down to an informed consent situation, where we go over the pros and the cons and then I choose what I think is best.

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