It started when I collapsed
My work as a defense analyst typically involves frequent international travel, and it has taught me to expect the unexpected. But I never thought that a trip abroad would nearly destroy my health — and that a team of Temple cardiologists and heart surgeons would save it.
Around 10 years ago, I started feeling dizzy and fatigued all of a sudden after a flight home from Africa. I tried pushing through it, but the situation escalated when I collapsed at work and was rushed to the hospital. My doctors diagnosed me with chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH), a rare condition where blood clots became lodged in my lungs and caused my blood vessels to get blocked with something similar to scar tissue. It turns out, my symptoms weren’t unusual. A lot of people who have CTEPH experience what I did – shortness of breath, feeling weak and exhausted, a pounding chest, and fainting.
My options for treatment were taking expensive pills or having surgery. I chose the medication since the surgery, pulmonary thromboendarterectomy (PTE), sounded overwhelming. Plus – who wants to have invasive surgery when a daily pill could be just as effective? But unfortunately, the medication didn't do a good job of getting my symptoms under control.
Life with CTEPH
With CTEPH, I was able to walk on flat surfaces without too much of a problem, but the slightest incline would leave me huffing and puffing. Simple things I had taken for granted like walking my dog up hills in my neighborhood became challenging. Friends and family would comment that my face had a pale, ashen color. When I talked, you could actually hear a slight wheeze. The doctors told me that the scar tissue in my lungs was making it harder for my body to get enough oxygen, which put a strain on my heart.
I started to worry about traveling abroad. Would I be able to get the care I needed if something went wrong? I was determined not to let CTEPH totally control my life though, so I decided to try going skiing in the Rocky Mountains — an activity I always loved — with my wife and son. But the high altitude put such a strain on my lungs that I needed supplemental oxygen.
Eventually it got to the point where I was sleeping for 10 hours a day because I was so tired. My body was struggling, and I resigned myself to a life that simply wouldn't be as rich or full as it once was. It was hard to accept, but I tried to make the best of it.
A chance at a cure
I was being treated at a D.C.-area hospital for an unrelated heart issue when I met a cardiologist who was consulting on my case. She noticed that the level of oxygen in my blood was alarmingly low. She said that this meant the medication I was taking for my CTEPH wasn't working for me.
The cardiologist suggested I meet with Paul Forfia, MD, at Temple Health. She told me that Dr. Forfia was one of the leading experts in treating CTEPH in the entire country and that he might be able to offer a solution that could get my condition under better control.
I jumped at the chance to get my life back and to begin feeling better, and I quickly made the trip from my home in Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia.
A life-changing operation
It wasn't until I met Dr. Forfia that I learned how dire my situation was. His team ran tests that showed that I was functioning on the capacity of less than one lung, which explained why I was so tired and breathless. I was told that without a more effective treatment, my life might soon end.
But there was a treatment that could help me. Dr. Forfia told me that I was an ideal candidate for PTE surgery to remove the blockages in my lungs. It would be a major operation, lasting 6 hours, and there were risks involved. However, Dr. Foria told me it was the most effective treatment for CTEPH, and it was the best chance at saving my life.
I was nervous about having surgery, of course. But both my wife and I had complete confidence in Dr. Forfia and his team. They showed me charts and images related to my condition and treatment, and explained exactly how the procedure would go. We felt like we were all on the same wavelength, and I knew I was in the best possible hands.
I had the operation in October 2020. The procedure itself went smoothly, and my recovery was, in a word, amazing. I noticed that I was breathing easier and had more energy just a day after surgery. I spent 5 days in the hospital before I had recovered enough to return home. Throughout my stay, the doctors, nurses, and staff at Temple were caring, gentle, and accommodating. (And I wasn't an easy patient… I complained a lot!)