Dan Ford and his French bulldog, Jake. Dan has bounced back from a series of heart health issues that included a heart attack, two pulmonary embolisms and an ablation for irregular heartbeat.
“It was scary to discover how close I had been to dying,” said Villa Park, IL resident Dan Ford.
Dan, 44, had suffered from a common heart condition that can be life-threatening if untreated — and easily mistaken for milder conditions. But thanks to some good friends and a chance connection, Dan found the heart care he needed in time.
Dizziness, fatigue and shortness of breath can be signs of heart failure
If you passed Dan and his French bulldog, Jake, on the streets of Villa Park, odds are he would stop to chat with you. He is an outgoing guy who lives for the summertime pleasures of Chicagoland: concerts, ball games and cookouts.
But for much of 2022, Dan was not himself. In June, he began experiencing dizzy spells and shortness of breath. He felt tired all the time, yet could barely sleep. His heart was racing constantly, even when he wasn’t doing anything.
“I was struggling to move around,” said Dan. “I couldn’t even walk my dog.”
Too unwell to work, Dan often did not feel well enough to get up from his couch. The less he moved, the more weight he gained. The more weight he gained, the less he was able to move.
“I was in a jail cell of my own body,” he said.
When Dan went to see his primary care doctor in August, the doctor sent him to a local ER immediately because he was almost in cardiac arrest. Dan was diagnosed with heart failure. Unfortunately, that hospital system’s care plan did not alleviate his symptoms.
“I wasn’t getting better. I was actually getting worse,” said Dan. “I passed out several times and fell, and luckily didn’t break my bones or crack my skull open. I live alone, so I could have just died on the floor if that had happened.”
Dan’s mood darkened as his health problems grew worse. His friends and loved ones started to worry about him. By mid-December, at what he describes as his emotional low point, Dan was hiding in his one-bedroom apartment and not returning anyone’s phone calls.
Luckily, one of Dan’s best friends was visiting from California and did not stop banging on Dan’s door until he opened it.
When Dan described his symptoms, his friend recommended Ascension Saint Mary - Chicago cardiologist Arjun Mehta, MD.
Irregular heartbeat can be serious if not treated
Dr. Mehta specializes in treating irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and serves a largely Spanish-speaking community. He quickly assessed that Dan’s earlier heart failure diagnosis was in fact a side effect of irregular heartbeat.
“Dan’s heart rate was going about 140-150 beats per minute for months on end,” said Dr. Mehta. “At times, it would spike to 250 beats per minute, which is likely when he would pass out. If the heart beats that fast for that long, it weakens and can’t pump blood at full capacity.”
According to Dr. Mehta, many of his patients also mistake arrhythmia for anxiety, or just assume their symptoms are part of getting older. “A lot of people in Dan’s situation think they have to live like this. But they don’t. We have ways to fix the problem with modern medicine and technology.”
Do you frequently feel dizzy, short of breath and tired? Does your heart beat rapidly even at rest? Ask your primary care doctor if seeing an electrophysiologist is right for you.
Dr. Mehta recommended an ablation procedure for Dan’s arrhythmia.
“As soon as I got to Saint Mary, life seemed to start getting better,” remembered Dan. Even today, he speaks warmly of everyone from Dr. Mehta and his fellow in-house doctors to his nurses (Zoey and Lauren) and physical therapists (Roberto and Esther).
“Every single person was caring and answered my questions and were very sincere people. Having that level of care helped bring down my stress and anxiety levels.”
Cardiac ablation that puts the patient’s needs first
A minimally invasive procedure, ablation typically goes something like this. The patient is injected with a dye called a contrast agent that allows the surgeon to view their heart and blood vessels with an X-ray. This makes it easy for the care team to guide an ultra-thin catheter up through the large arteries in the patient’s leg until it reaches the affected area of the heart.
“At that point, we neutralize or ‘zap’ the cells of the heart that are telling it to beat 250 times per minute for no reason,” said Dr. Mehta.
Dan’s weight at the time was too high for them to use X-rays and contrast dye, making the procedure more complex and difficult, so Dr. Mehta drew on his experience for another way to treat Dan. Instead of X-rays, Dr. Mehta would insert a device called an intracardiac ultrasound through Dan’s leg before the team ran the ablation catheter. This would help them safely map the route to Dan’s heart.
Dan noticed the difference almost immediately upon waking. “My heart wasn’t trying to claw its way through my chest because it was beating so hard. I felt calm.”
And there was an even more pleasant surprise the first time he got to his feet. “I’d gotten into the habit of bracing myself for that feeling like I was going to faint. It didn’t happen this time.”
Dan’s heart capacity was a tenth of what it was supposed to be, but he was able to double that capacity over the coming weeks with physical therapy and exercise. Starting with a few tentative steps, Dan soon worked his way to making laps around the hospital floor, then going for supervised walks in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Multidisciplinary care teams working together
Dan’s care team helped him improve his heart health in other ways, too. He’d begun losing weight before his surgery and his nutritionist helped him keep that going with healthy eating advice. Pulmonologist Ada Arias diagnosed Dan with sleep apnea and even arranged for a CPAP machine to be installed in Dan’s bedroom; it was waiting for him when he got home.
By the end of his 17-day stay, Dan knew the name of just about everyone at Ascension Saint Mary - Chicago — and they certainly knew Dan. He was practically the mayor of the eighth floor, joking with the nurses at the front desk, cheering on his fellow patients during physical and occupational therapy.
For Dr. Mehta, seeing this big change in Dan’s mood and outlook is one of the most rewarding parts of his job. He’s also proud that his team brings such high-quality care to an underserved community.
“I think we’re doing university-level care here and that our electrophysiology team is one of the top in the country,” he said.
Dan and Jake enjoy a walk in Villa Park. Dan has lost 60 pounds and continues to make healthy modifications to his diet and lifestyle.
Rediscovering the joy of living
Now that he is eating healthier, exercising and getting “the best sleep of my life,” Dan is eager to make up for lost time.
“I cleaned up my bedroom, which had been a catastrophe during those six months,” he said. “Eventually I ran out of stuff to clean around the house, so I’ve started focusing on other areas.”
Dan is exploring new career options. He’s discovered a love of reading and become a regular at his local library. He’s reconnected with friends, family and his Catholic faith.
“When people hear me on the phone, they can tell they’re talking to a different person,” said Dan.
Possibly the only one happier than Dan right now is Jake.
“My dog hardly recognizes me because I’m taking him out 5-6 times a day,” Dan laughed. “I’m giving him his best life.”
Dan’s experience has taught him to appreciate the simpler things, like being able to take a shower and cook a meal in his kitchen. This mindfulness keeps him focused on moving forward.
“Not every day is easy, but it’s getting easier. Life’s fun again.”