The Heart of the Matter:Taking Action Can Save Your Life

Jim Kitsmiller riding recumbent bicycle while supervised by Tesia Davis.

Batesville, Ark.--Heart failure. That’s what was discovered to be the cause of Jim Kitsmiller’s sudden breathing problems and extreme tiredness. Other than these symptoms, Jim, 61 at the time, was fairly healthy. He led a seemingly active lifestyle, he kept his weight under control, and he didn’t smoke, so the diagnosis took him by surprise.

“When I was told there was a serious issue with my heart, I was in shock. I have a family history of heart issues, but I’ve always been in fairly good shape,” he said.

Heart failure is a condition where the heart doesn’t pump blood through the body as it should. To compensate, the heart makes adjustments to give the rest of the body what it needs and when those adjustments stop working, the symptoms of heart failure become noticeable, sometimes even life altering, for patients.

Heart failure is a type of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. One in four deaths is traced back to heart disease, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Fortunately in many cases, such as Jim’s, the disease doesn’t have to be fatal.

Jim had made an appointment with his physician, Dr. J.R. Baker, for his symptoms. He was sent to White River Medical Center (WRMC) for tests and then to Cardiologist Garrett Sanford, M.D. where it was discovered that his ejection fraction, or the measurement of how well his heart is pumping blood, was at about 15 percent. A normal heart operates at 55-60 percent. He was soon hit with the reality that his condition was much more serious than he ever thought.

For a brief period Jim wore a special device called a Life Vest, which monitors the heart for life threatening arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythm). Although it is not appropriate for every patient, Life Vest protected Jim as he worked to improve his heart function with medication and Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation (Cardiac Rehab).

 “Patients with low ejection fractions are at much more of a risk of sudden cardiac death from arrhythmias than those with normal ejection fractions,” said Dr. Sanford.

Cardiac rehab is a program of structured exercise and education for patients with heart disease and patients with conditions that affect their ability to breathe easily.  The three-phase program brings together health care professionals to help patients feel better.

Over the next several months, members of the Cardiac Rehab team: Clint James, Jennifer Coleman, Toi McMullin, Tesia Davis, and Autumn Jones, worked with Jim to improve his health. His hard work, combined with medicine, is paying off.

Today his heart is operating at a nearly normal rate of 45 percent. He has also adopted healthier eating and exercise habits and no longer has to wear the LifeVest. “I’m thankful for all the support I received throughout this journey,” he says. “Without it, this story could have had a not-so-happy ending.”

Sanford encourages people to take action when symptoms of heart disease arise. Symptoms such as unexplained fatigue and shortness of breath are often dismissed by patients, sometimes leading to severe complications that could have been avoided.

“There are a number of risk factors that lead to heart disease and a number of symptoms associated with it as well,” said Dr. Sanford. “It’s important to know what they are and make regular visits to your physician.”

According to the CDC, some of those risk factors include having high cholesterol and/or blood pressure, having a family history of heart disease, being overweight, having diabetes, lack of exercise, and using tobacco.

The White River Health System website has a new interactive health library where you can learn more about symptoms and risks of heart disease, or many other health topics, at www.whiteriverhealthsystem.com.