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Kassandra Benson’s Story

Heart Failure Survivor, Age 46, Hampton, VA

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Kassandra's Story

In March 2011, I’d returned from a year long deployment.  I had a month’s leave or so after my return.  During this time, I noted that I was very tired all the time.  After I’d returned to my unit for duty, my fatigue continued and I had swelling in my legs.  I figured all this had to be me getting re acclimated to my unit’s routine.  I was also experiencing tingling and tightness in my body/joints. My blood pressure was in the 140s, but this was a normal thing for me.  In April 2011 as I processed back in medically, I mentioned all these things to my primary care manager (PCM).  As this relates to my heart, my PCM noted that an echo came back a bit irregular and recommended I wear a heart monitor for a 24 hour period of time to assess my heart rate during a typical day.  At the end of the 24 hour period, I returned the monitor for evaluation.  Within about 2 hours of my turn-in, I was called to the emergency room to discuss findings.

I went to the emergency room and was immediately hooked up to heart monitor.  I was told that the assessment showed that my heart was beating irregularly.  I was asked if I’d ever been told I had a heart murmur.  I replied “No”..  The swelling in my legs was noted as well.  I stayed there for about 2 hours and was released with the understanding that my PCM would be contacted.  For the rest of the month, I went to work as usual still experiencing the fatigue and swelling.  As well, I was attending occupational therapy for what was believed to be carpel tunnel syndrome (from the tingling in my hands).   Within a couple of weeks, I did experience some chest tightness and went to the emergency room at least once.  During one of these visits, a chest exam was performed, other lab work taken, and I was given a prescript for 40 mg Lasix (Furosamide) to aid with the swelling and released back to PCM..  Because of my job in the military, I was unable to take the Lasix during the day, so I waited until after I got home to take it, which means I was usually up part of thr night!   On Memorial Day, I was taking a shower and started coughing.  My spittal included blood.  I continued to cough and couldn’t catch my breath.  I was taken back to the emergency room on base and collapsed and had to be given oxygen to get my breath under control.  I was also given a catheter to aid in getting the fluid  out of me.

Over the next 3-4 hours, I was monitored, had more lab work, went over my history, more  Xrays, etc.  I was told that I was in congestive heart failure.  After I stabilized, I was transferred to a hospital off-base and admitted to the ICU and eventually to the Cardiology wing.  I was there a week for another round tests, continued fluid drain, and a lot of rest. They doctors could  not figure out why a 43 year old woman with no prior heart issues and a non-smoker went into heart failure.  The catherization was clean: no blockage.  I was once again released backed to my PCM at my base with instruction to continue taking the Lasix and limited work schedule.  Within a month, I was referred to a Cardiologist and an ultrasound of my heart and another echo was performed.  When the results came back, my world as I knew it, changed.  The Cardiologist explained that while it was true I had no blockage, I had a leaky valve and was diagnosed with a condition called Mitral Valve Regurgitation.  She explained  the reason I went into CHF was due to the fluid back up after I started taking the Lasix and because my valve wasn’t working properly, fluid kept backing back into my lungs faster than the fluid could be eliminated..  This caused my heart to not function as it was supposed to (this is when I learned what an ejection fraction was) and this caused some of my fatigue. My ejection fraction was so low that this caused the heart failure.

The reason I said earlier that my world changed is because she went on to explain that with this condition, it was unlikely I’d be able to deploy again and this type of condition would require a Medical Board evaluation.  Since I was already over 20 years in the military, it was likely I’d be medically retired.   Additionally, I was still awaiting word on what was causing my joints to swell and ache.   Knowing my job and the deployment schedule, I saw the writing on the wall as far as my future in the military.

I asked the cardiologist what the prognosis was.  I mean all kinds of things were going through my mind.  Was I going to die?  have a heart attack?  What was going on.  She mentioned that I would need to have my heart monitored periodically, probably be placed on heart medication, and change my lifestyle accordingly as it pertained to diet/exercise, etc.  She explained the periodic heart monitoring would show whether the valves were getting better or worse.  Heart valve replacement may need to occur in the future.  I have subsequently been diagnosed with an auto-immune connective tissue disease called Scleroderma.  That diagnosis sealed my Medical Board evaluation and I was medically retired in July 2012. It’s not known if the two diagnoses are related, but having the Scleroderma is a concern because it can affect my internal organs, especially my heart and lungs.  I must say that’s it’s been difficult to deal with all this.  I went from an active life to almost a stand-still.  Low energy and daily pain from the Scleroderma.  I don’t know how to explain the mental hoops I’ve gone through.  It’s been a challenge and a humbling experience to have retired in this manner.

I’m managing day to day activities; learning to figure out what works.  I take a lot of medication which is annoying.  I will say that my faith has been tested, is being tested daily, but it has also grown which is a blessing.  Without God, I don’t think I’d be able to keep moving forward.  I am blessed to be able to volunteer in the community.  I’m unable to work right now, but I do receive disability as a retiree in addition to my retirement pay.  That’s a blessing also.

I know I wrote a lot, but I hope this helps someone else.

Kass Benson, 17 Jan 2014

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Kassandra is interested in giving and receiving support from other women with heart disease. Contact her if you'd like to give and receive support.


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