Susan Sensenig had to stop and rest when she went up a flight of stairs. Her feet and legs were swollen – even her shoes felt tight. The 58-year-old mother of seven children felt exhausted most of the time from even doing the smallest things.
Here are three things (and one bonus thing) that happened to her next as she was treated for heart failure by a team from WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital. U.S. News & World Report recently recognized the hospital as a “high performing” hospital in caring for patients with heart failure in its 2021-22 annual report, designed to help patients make informed decisions about where to receive care for challenging health conditions.
1. The speedy diagnosis
Susan’s primary care doctor referred her for an echocardiogram. Cindy Lepard, a WellSpan cardiac sonographer, knew right away that something was seriously wrong. Susan’s face was gray. Her blood pressure was high. Her pulse was going up and down. And the echocardiogram confirmed Lepard’s concerns, revealing problems with Susan’s heart function.
“I was watching her and all the time I was doing the echocardiogram, I was asking her questions,” Lepard said. “She is only two years older than me and I was like, OK, she is too young to be feeling like this and have a heart rhythm like this. I tried to get the whole clinical picture.“
Lepard, who underwent triple bypass heart surgery at the young age of 40, knows the importance of not ignoring troubling heart symptoms and the value of getting medical help right away.
Lepard reached out to her colleague Barb Strock, a registered nurse and heart failure navigator, for input and help with some further testing, and then consulted WellSpan cardiologist Dr. Julian Esteban. Esteban determined Susan was in heart block, a condition caused when the electrical signals from the top chambers of the heart don’t conduct correctly to the bottom chambers of the heart.
She needed immediate intervention.
2. The quick response
In a very short time, Susan found herself in an ambulance going to WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital.
“I knew I was pretty bad,” Susan said. “I guess I was not too surprised. I had been pushing myself for many months.”
The immediate actions of the WellSpan medical team were lifesaving. It turned out that Susan was in heart failure, which had caused the heart block. Her heart was not pumping efficiently, and her body was filling up with fluid. Doctors immediately put her on medication to reduce the excess fluid and stabilized her.
3. The right treatment
The day after she arrived at the hospital, Susan received a pacemaker, implanted by WellSpan cardiologist and electrophysiologist Dr. C. Anwar A. Chahal, also the director for the WellSpan Center for Inherited Cardiovascular Diseases. A pacemaker is a small device implanted in the chest wall that sends electrical pulses to the heart, which can’t be felt by the patient, that help the heart work better and pump more efficiently.
“Susan was very ill when she came to us,” Chahal said. “The pacemaker should greatly improve her day-to-day life. It also will help slow the progression of heart failure. It was the right treatment at the right time.
4. The compassionate care (The bonus thing)
Susan feels much better since her pacemaker implant. She lost about 25 pounds, which was mainly due to the reduction of the fluid buildup in her body. She is awaiting further follow-up care, including testing by the WellSpan Center for Inherited Cardiovascular Diseases, to determine if there could be a genetic reason for her heart block and heart failure, which is unusual in someone her age.
The WellSpan team made her feel cared for, she said.
“I thought I could maybe go to the hospital on my own when I got the echocardiogram, but Cindy said I would not be safe to drive myself or go with my husband. She said I could easily pass out,” Susan said. “She and the nurse, Barb, together took care of me. I could sense they were very concerned and I am grateful to them for that.”
Lepard happened to be in the hospital the day that Susan got her pacemaker and stopped to see her, as she was recovering.
“I walked in and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh your color looks phenomenal!’ “ Lepard said. “She had such a gray, pasty look before and now her cheeks were rosy, and she just looked great.”
Lepard said Susan reminded her of her own experiences of undergoing heart treatment, and the importance of having someone there to make sure you get rapid, state-of-the-art treatment as well as stand by and reassure you.
“You have that nervous scared feeling of OK, what’s going to happen to me? Am I going to be alive tomorrow? Am I going to die? It is scary!” she said. “We both agreed this was meant to be. She came in to do her echocardiogram and I was there, and our team was there. She had someone to take care of her.”
To learn more about WellSpan’s lifesaving cardiovascular care, go here.