A triple play and safe at home: one woman’s story of heart disease

A triple play and safe at home: one woman’s story of heart disease

February 2016 


Pat Carroll couldn’t catch her breath. The 62 year-old retiree, who works as a seating host for baseball games at Seattle’s Safeco Field and as a tour guide for Century Link Field, couldn’t walk more than a short distance without having to rest. And it was getting worse.

Pat thought her shortness of breath was due to a childhood asthma diagnosis, but she would soon find out the cause was something much more serious.

One day in November 2014, she went to let in a visiting friend and couldn’t make it to her front gate. She called paramedics and asked them to take her to Northwest Hospital.

Emergency room staff called cardiologist Dr. David Warth of Summit Cardiology at Northwest Hospital. Dr. Warth told Pat her shortness of breath wasn’t asthma. Instead, he suspected she had a condition called aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve that allows blood to flow from the heart’s lower left chamber into the aorta and to the body. Stenosis prevents the valve from opening properly, forcing the heart to work harder to pump.

"Pat has probably had aortic stenosis for years. Symptoms get worse so gradually that people don’t notice, or they attribute them to other things," explains Dr. Warth.

"By the time people get significant symptoms, the valve needs to be fixed right away." Symptoms include shortness of breath, weakness and fatigue, chest pain and lightheadedness.

Heart Disease: What makes women different?

While many people think heart disease is more common in men, more women actually die each year of the disease. In fact, heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States and is more deadly than all forms of cancer.

Many risk factors for heart disease affect both women and men, such as high cholesterol, blood pressure, obesity and family history. But there are some risk factors that play a bigger role in the development of heart disease in women than men, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Metabolic syndrome – a combination of fat around the abdomen, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high triglycerides
  • Mental stress and depression – prevent women from maintaining a healthy lifestyle
  • Lack of physical activity – more prevalent in women than men
  • Low levels of estrogen after menopause – poses a significant risk factor for developing blockages in the smaller blood vessels
  • Pregnancy complications – high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy can increase a woman’s long-term risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease

Talk to your doctor today about your risk factors and how to reduce your risk of heart disease and heart attack.

Information courtesy of The Mayo Clinic

Dr. Warth admitted Pat to the hospital for tests, including an angiogram, which was performed by cardiologist Dr. Gary Weeks, also from Summit Cardiology. During the test, a long, narrow tube called a catheter, is inserted into a blood vessel in the arm or leg and guided to the heart with the aid of a special X-ray machine. This lets doctors see inside the heart and arteries and determine how well they are functioning.

The angiogram confirmed that Pat had aortic stenosis, but, surprisingly, it also showed she was suffering from coronary artery disease. Coronary artery disease is a blockage of the arteries that carry blood and oxygen to the heart. With blockages in three of the main arteries to her heart, Pat was at significant risk of having a heart attack.

"Even though Pat had major coronary artery disease, women don’t always have classic symptoms," says Dr. Weeks. "Women don’t typically experience the heavy chest pain that men do. We need to look at other symptoms, like shortness of breath, intolerance to exertion or lightheadedness and see whether they are heart-related."

Pat also didn’t have many of the risk factors for coronary artery disease, such as diabetes, smoking or poor diet, but she did have family history. Both her grandparents had heart attacks and her grandfather died of the disease.

Dr. Weeks told Pat she needed surgery to replace her heart valve, as well as a cardiac bypass procedure. She was allowed to go home for a couple of days to prepare. "I wasn’t scared of the surgery. I just knew I had to feel better than I did then. Asthma is bad, but this was worse," says Pat.

On December 3, 2014, UW cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Edward Verrier performed Pat’s five-and-a-half-hour surgery at Northwest Hospital.

In a valve replacement, the damaged or deformed heart valve is replaced with a mechanical valve or a valve made of tissue. Mechanical valves can last for decades, but patients who have them must take anticoagulants, or blood thinners, for the rest of their lives to prevent blood clots. While tissue valves don’t require anticoagulants, they have a shorter lifespan and may need be replaced again within 10 to 20 years if they degenerate. Pat chose a tissue valve.

Cardiac bypass surgery involves removing a vein from the leg and using it to bypass blocked arteries and create new routes for blood and oxygen to get to the heart.

Pat recovered well from surgery. "I had lots of people looking out for me in the hospital. Dr. Verrier visited me, along with Jean Blue, the cardiac surgery nurse practitioner. Dr. Weeks came in constantly," she says. "The nurses were absolutely wonderful. And the food was good too!"

Pat stayed in the hospital for six days. Because she lives alone, she was discharged to a skilled nursing facility to recover. There, staff could monitor her condition 24 hours a day and start her on physical therapy to get stronger.

After returning home, Pat felt weak and had no stamina. Dr. Weeks referred her to Northwest Hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program to help her regain strength and establish a pattern of healthy exercise and lifestyle choices. Patients in the program participate in classes and exercise sessions supervised by specialized critical care nurses and exercise physiologists. Patients are monitored while exercising, and a cardiologist is on call during all classes.

"Cardiac rehabilitation has proven to improve outcomes and prolong life," says Dr. Weeks. "It teaches people to listen to their internal health, to pace themselves and to understand their limitations and capabilities."

"I’ve had a blast in cardiac rehab," says Pat. "The therapists are phenomenal. I’ve met some very nice people and you realize you’re not going through this by yourself. I don’t care who you are, cardiac rehab is the best thing you can do. I’m planning to stay as long as they’ll have me!"

Listen to Pat Carroll's story of heart diseasePat’s goal was to go back to working baseball games. "I needed to do 36 stairs, at least four times a day," she says. This past March, she returned to work. She says even though she was really tired at the end of the day, she was proud she got through it. "Right now, two days in a row working is good enough. I’m being careful about doing too much."

Dr. Weeks says Pat’s coronary artery disease and new valve will have to be monitored over the coming years, but today she has normal valve and heart function.

"I can breathe, I can walk, I can keep up with my friend who is six feet tall," she enthuses. "I don’t get winded. It makes a huge difference!"

For more information on Summit Cardiology, visit summitcardiology.com or call 206.363.1004. For more information on the Northwest Hospital Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, contact your doctor or call 206.368.6550.

Call Us: 855.520.5151

Request An
Appointment Online

​​​Health Topic


​​Find a Physician in Your Area

From primary to specialty care, UW Medicine has more than 1,500 healthcare professionals that provide convenient, compassionate, expert healthcare.

Find A UW Medicine Physician

​​​Find a UW Medicine Facility

With four medical centers, 10 neighborhood clinics and 200 outpatient clinics, people in Puget Sound have access to the most advanced medicine available.

Find A UW Medicine Location