Eldersburg woman shares story of heart disease

Eldersburg woman shares story of heart disease
Erin Peiffer is shown at her Eldersburg home Jan. 25. (DAVE MUNCH/STAFF PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

ELDERSBURG - A breathless Erin Peiffer climbed out of the pool halfway through her water aerobics class, lungs rattling. She coughed. She tried to take a deep breath in, then out, but was left sputtering.

The Eldersburg resident whipped out her cellphone and dialed her husband's number.

"I don't know what's going on," she told him. "I think I swallowed water - I'm really having trouble breathing."

Hours later, a nurse hovered over Peiffer inside a Carroll Hospital Center room.

"You're too young to be here," Peiffer, then 39, recalled the nurse saying.

A quizzical look crossed Peiffer's face. She had driven to the hospital, and a medical professional put an IV in each arm. But she didn't know what was wrong or what wing of the hospital she'd been taken.

"You're in the heart room," Peiffer remembered the nurse saying. "You're in congestive heart failure and flash pulmonary edema."

A series of tests later revealed that what doctors originally diagnosed as a virus attacking her heart and weakening the organ's muscles was something much different. She had a 99 percent blockage in her left main artery, a rarity in a healthy woman who hadn't yet hit 40.

After one such test, a surgeon knelt beside Peiffer and told her she needed surgery right away. Without it, she had less than a 1 percent chance of being alive in four months time.

As she lay on a Johns Hopkins Hospital operating room table the next day, March 2, 2001, her heart was stopped as she underwent a seven-hour coronary bypass surgery.

The aftermath

Every February, which is American Heart Month, the memories of that year resurface more often. It's a tale the advocate for women's heart disease awareness has told throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C., on CNN and, most recently, in the February edition of Women's Day magazine.

Peiffer left the hospital six days after her surgery with a Johns Hopkins-issued, all-you-need-to-know about heart disease binder.

"You hear these cliches, but heart disease and cancer, you really do reevaluate what's important," she said. "You get realigned."

She takes 19 different medicines daily; insures her diet is low in fat, cholesterol and doesn't contain added salt; and exercises often.

"The biggest change is, for a lot of people, it will mean medications for the rest of their life," said Dr. Radhika Kuna, a Carroll Hospital Center cardiologist, "but with those medications, the right diet, regular follow up with a doctor, a lot of people will walk around with heart disease for years and years and remain otherwise quite healthy."

At least physically. Mentally, the experience was taxing on the Peiffer family.

At Panera in Eldersburg Jan. 23, Peiffer - her brown hair cropped short, her energy plentiful - mimed the slow climb of a roller coaster up a hill and the plummet downward as she described her post-surgery experience. She told of the lengthy recovery that saw her re-hospitalized 12 times in as many months. She told of losing her health and, thus, losing her job. She recalled her husband Bryan and her three young children staying by her side.

"She may say that she appreciates me," Bryan Peiffer said, "but what else do you do? In sickness and in health, we live by it."

The question on his mind in 2001, "Am I going to lose my wife?" still leaves him choked up when he says it out loud.


Warning signs

The color red crops up in February, not only because of Valentine's Day, but also for heart health month. Heart disease's sometimes dull chest ache or explosive pain is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One in three deaths in the United States is a result of heart disease and stroke, which equates to about 2,200 deaths per day, according to the CDC. Peiffer was unaware of just how prevalent the disease's deadly nature was before she was gasping for air in that swimming pool. She associated heart problems with a pain that grabs you "like the elephant on your chest," but hers came in the form of an inability to breathe.

As a WomenHeart champion, which is a certification she received from The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, she talks at events and tells attendees that women's symptoms can be a more subtle pain.

The classic symptoms of a heart attack are chest heaviness and pressure, but that's not the signs many women show, Kuna said. Instead, their heart may race, and they might experience shortness of breath.

"A lot of people worry about sharp, stabbing pain ... something that feels like a knife going into my chest, but that's a lot less common for a heart attack," she said. "It's often a dull, vague aching pain that people describe, and again that's oftentimes why people will ignore symptoms. You're almost a little luckier to have severe pain."

That's because the pain triggers to the mind that all is not well. Heart disease can sneak up on an individual suddenly if preventative measures aren't being taken, according to Kuna. Such steps include quitting smoking; ensuring blood pressure, cholesterol, sugar and weight are under control; visiting a doctor regularly; exercising; and maintaining a healthy diet.

"The key thing is to know that heart disease is very treatable and very preventable as long as you're getting the care that you need," Kuna said.

Since 1984, more women have died of cardiovascular disease than men, according to the American Heart and Stroke Associations 2012 updated statistical fact sheet. Women represent about 52 percent of such deaths, which Wendy Post, a Johns Hopkins associate professor of medicine in the cardiology division, said could be attributed to their mentality.

"Often, women are so busy taking care of their families or other people," she said, "and often times women don't take care of their own health, so it's important for us to take care of ourselves."