Recognizing early signs can help you live well with heart failure

Pay attention to changes in your health, Tracy advises
Tracy Bawtinheimer wears a purple jacket and shorts as she walks in the woods.

It is estimated that 600,000 Canadians are living with heart failure, a shattering diagnosis that’s on the rise. 

“With more than 50,000 new diagnoses each year, there is an urgent need for Canadians to better understand heart failure,” says Dr. Gavin Arthur, senior manager of the Promote Recovery program at Heart & Stroke. “There is no cure, but early diagnosis, lifestyle changes and appropriate drug treatments can help you lead a normal and active life, stay out of hospital and live longer.”

The challenge is getting a diagnosis early. Knowing the signs is crucial, says Tracy Bawtinheimer, a 51-year-old executive with a global financial services company, who is based in Victoria.

For months, Tracy had been experiencing a racing heart, dizziness, extreme shortness of breath and unexplained weight gain, but she had chalked it up to stress from work and travel. 

She finally went to emergency late one night in December 2013. She was diagnosed with wide complex tachycardia, a heart rhythm disorder that she eventually learned was triggered by an underlying autoimmune condition. After extensive tests she had surgery to implant a device that would regulate her heart rhythm. 

Although the treatment saved Tracy’s life, heart failure was her new reality — a result of scar tissue and damage to her heart.

Heart failure develops after the heart becomes damaged or weakened. The pumping action is not strong enough to move blood around the body properly, especially during increased activity or stress. In addition, the heart muscle may not relax properly to accommodate the flow of blood back from the lungs to the heart.

Symptoms of heart failure can include:

  • increased shortness of breath, especially when lying flat
  • sudden gain of more than 1.5 kg (3 pounds) over 1 to 2 days, or 2.5 kg (5 pounds) in a single week
  • bloating or feeling full all the time
  • cough or cold symptoms that last longer than a week
  • tiredness, loss of energy or extreme tiredness
  • loss of or change in appetite
  • increased swelling of the ankles, feet, legs, sacrum (base of the spine) or abdomen (stomach area)
  • increased urination at night.

For Tracy, living with heart failure means taking daily medication and changing how she approaches favourite activities including hiking and cycling. “Now, I must be more thoughtful and planned in my activities. I can still do the things I love, just not to the same extent. Getting out and enjoying nature is vital to my wellbeing. My energy levels can vary from day to day which means that I need to be flexible and accepting of changes.”

Tracy advises Canadians to pay attention to any changes in their health and see a doctor if they’re concerned.

“Become familiar with the signs and symptoms and listen to your intuition. It’s always better to consult a physician than assume you understand the cause of any unexplained changes,” Tracy says.

Connecting with people who understand can be a great source of information and support. Heart & Stroke has created a Facebook group for people living with heart disease. To join, search for Community of Survivors on Facebook.