Heart failure

My “pneumonia” symptoms actually indicated heart failure

Glenda Sexauer, 59, was diagnosed with heart failure when she was 46. But it took nearly a year, as his heart health steadily declined, for doctors to realize what was wrong.

She had several symptoms, including relentless fatigue, bloating, nausea, and weight gain that she could not explain. Initially, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and pneumonia before her doctor referred her to a cardiologist. She was hospitalized for several weeks and had a pacemaker and defibrillator placed in her chest. Her road to recovery has taken several years – she still takes several medications every day and relies on her pacemaker – but she credits her active lifestyle with helping her through it all.

Heart failure affects approximately 3.6 million women in the United States, but there is a huge disparity in research between men and women with heart failure. Nearly 50% of people hospitalized for heart failure are women,1 yet only 25% of women participate in heart failure studies.2

After her experience, Sexauer became a community educator with WomenHearta non-profit organization that educates women with heart disease about signs of heart failure. Here is her story, told to writer Erica Sweeney.

I have always been active. I exercised regularly, ran marathons, and once took a 2-day, 150-mile bike ride. But, when I was 46, I noticed that I no longer felt like myself. I had gained weight and was tired all the time. I slept a lot and felt bloated. I just knew something was wrong. I first went to my gynecologist, thinking my symptoms might indicate menopause, but my hormone tests ruled it out. Then I researched my symptoms online and thought maybe it was my thyroid acting up. My doctor diagnosed me with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that can cause symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, and muscle weakness. I thought, “OK, that’s how it is.”

I continued to feel tired all the time, despite taking medicine for Hashimoto. There was a lot going on in my life at the time too. My son had just left for university and my mother-in-law was living with us. I was working as a vice president of a financial services company. My mother was also very ill; she had Alzheimer’s disease and was nearing the end of her life. So I thought maybe I was just feeling anxious.

Then I started getting a funny feeling in my chest as I lay down. It was like I could hear my heart rumble. A few nights I had to sit up to sleep. After my mother died, something else made me think. I was at his funeral when I spat out some stuff that didn’t look right. I saw my GP and told him I thought I had pneumonia. He confirmed that I had some fluid in my lungs and prescribed medication. I never had a fever, which in hindsight was a big clue that I didn’t have pneumonia. No one ever thought I had heart disease.

Then, I was finally diagnosed with heart failure.

To celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, my husband and I planned a trip to Hawaii. We decided to go, even though I didn’t feel very well. I couldn’t eat much and was nauseous. When we arrived I slept then a lot. I had to sit down and rest after climbing only two steps. We planned all these activities and had to cancel them all the time because I just couldn’t do them – and that’s not my style. The day we got home I put all my symptoms into an online health check and it suggested I had a heart problem. At the time, we laughed because I was really quite healthy.