Diagnosis: Coarctation of the Aorta
For nearly half her life, 42-year-old Nancy Stewart had been told she suffered from a heart murmur…but that didn’t explain her excruciating headaches, nausea and exhaustion.
Annual checkups and multiple echocardiograms failed to provide an answer.
“I was trying to keep up my energy and stamina,” she recalls, “but I was feeling progressively worse.”
Frustrated over the lack of answers, Nancy went to EvergreenHealth Medical Center in hopes of getting to the bottom of her mystery illness.
Within a few minutes of meeting Nancy, EvergreenHealth Heart Care’s Ken Mills had a good idea what might be going on. “That just blew me away,” Stewart says, “Ken knew exactly what to look for and exactly what to do.”
Mills, head of EvergreenHealth’s Echocardiography Department, confirmed his clinical suspicion with a comprehensive echocardiogram – Nancy had a coarctation of the aorta.
This congenital condition is a narrowing of the aorta, which causes high blood pressure and can lead to heart failure or stroke.
It’s a defect that is normally detected during infancy or childhood.
Upon completion of his exam, Mills called in colleague Dr. Harry Yu, a cardiologist at EvergreenHealth Heart Care.
“This condition can be difficult to diagnose,” Dr. Yu explains. “We were able to pick it up because of our thorough and rigid standards for echocardiograms. If you don’t do a thorough, clinically-directed exam you can miss unusual heart conditions.”
At EvergreenHealth’s state-of-the-art Echocardiography Lab, Nancy underwent three “echos.”
Her first, a trans-thoracic, is the standard used to evaluate cardiac structure, heart function and causes of murmurs.
Next was a transesophageal echo, where a probe is threaded down the throat to look at the aorta from behind.
Finally, a stress echo. While Nancy walked on a treadmill, Mills scanned her with Doppler ultrasound to determine if her anomaly got worse with activity…and it did. Her blood pressure rose dangerously with very little activity.
Finally – after 20 years – Nancy finally knew what was really wrong with her.
Because the condition is rare in adults, only a handful of surgery centers around the country were equipped to handle her case. Thanks to Dr. Yu’s professional connections, surgeons at Stanford’s Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital agreed to operate.
Today, Nancy Stewart is so healthy that she has been able to go back to work full time and has discontinued medication.
“I feel like I’m 20 years younger,” she reports. “All of my symptoms are gone. I feel incredible.”
Stewart credits Ken Mills and Dr. Harry Yu with saving her life.
“They listened to me right from the beginning,” she says, “and they were so supportive and thorough. I know they’re the difference between my being here today and not being here.”