In the middle of August, 2002, I came down with a head cold that turned into a chest cold. I was really busy at work, where I was a bank branch manager and Associate Vice President with deadlines to meet. Donovan was out of town for work so I was taking care of Rachael, who was 5, and Rodger, who was approximately 4 months old. I was really tired but I just kept on going telling myself that I was going to take a day off when Donovan got back.

The day before Donovan was due to return, I was at work and had just finished a big project. On my way to the restroom I got a feeling, like I was going to pass out. I came back to the lobby and told my staff that I wasn't feeling well and I was going to go home. One of them asked if he should drive me home. I said no, but I promised to call and let them know I was ok.

I came straight home, thinking I would take a nap before I picking up the kids from daycare, but decided this wasn't the answer. I was so afraid that I was going to pass out in the middle of the night, and then who was going to take care of the kids? So I telephoned my Mother, who lives in Yakima. All I had to say was, "Mom, I don't feel good. I think I need to go to the emergency room." My parents dropped everything and came right over.

3 hours later I was at St. Francis hospital with my Mother while my Father watched the kids. They told me I had a cold and was dehydrated. They gave me IV fluids and sent me home.

My condition worsened. I was feeling very weak and was not able to eat. I returned to the doctor's office one or two more times. On one occasion they sent me to the hospital for a test that they could not perform at the clinic. They suspected ulcer or gall bladder trouble. Again the hospital administered IV fluids and sent me home.

This did not improve things. I was finally so weak that I couldn't eat or drink. When I tried, I kept throwing up. When my weakness made it difficult to walk without help, I went to the clinic again. They suggested that I see a gastroenterologist, who would try to narrow down the problem. This required admission to the hospital.

When I arrived there, they immediately began IV fluids until the GI doctors could scope me the next day. After being scoped from both ends, three doctors came into my room and said they could find nothing. They suggested a CT scan. After reviewing the scan, they said they could find nothing unusual, other than an enlarged heart and some fluid in my lungs. They recommended that I stay in the hospital until I was able to keep down some solids.

While in the hospital I had a hard time sleeping. I had difficulty breathing and would get an overwhelmed feeling. For the remainder of my hospital stay they put me heart monitor and suggested that when I was feeling better I should probably do a stress test.

I was in the hospital for 6 days. During this time my parents stayed at my house, helping with the kids. Donovan split his time between the kids, work and spending time with me in the hospital.

When I was finally able to keep down some food, I was released from the hospital. They suggested that I eat cup-a-soup as easy on the stomach, and to drink Gatorade to help with my fluids. (How was I to know these sodium-rich items would rapidly make my condition worse?) When I came home I was really swollen. I couldn't find my ankles, my ring was stuck, and I felt very weak.

While at work on September 30th I was having chest pain and difficulty breathing. I knew something was very wrong, so I asked Donovan to pick me up and take me to the clinic. They did an EKG and sent me to the Emergency Room so a qualified doctor could read it. At the hospital, right away they ordered an echocardiogram. After this test the doctor informed me that I was very sick. My ejection fraction was at 17% and I should see a cardiologist right away. He called around to find the soonest available cardiologist. After administering IV diuretics, I was given prescriptions for Digoxin and diuretics and sent home until my appointment with the cardiologist.

I was really scared, knowing something was seriously wrong. I prepared myself for what I thought was the worst; heart surgery. My oldest brother had a heart-attack less than a year earlier. When I told my Mom what was going on, she insisted on coming along to the cardiologist appointment, after speaking with her coworkers at the hospital in Yakima where she worked as a dialysis tech.

On October 2nd, the day of the appointment, Donovan took Rachael to a play at the Paramount, for which I had purchased tickets weeks earlier with every intention of taking her myself. They met my parents and me at the cardiologist's just before the scheduled appointment time. Donovan and I went in while the rest waited in the lobby.

Dr. Fellows walked in, listened to my heart for about a minute, and gave me my diagnosis. He said that my ejection fraction was actually more like 10%, not 17%, and that my condition was called "idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy." He used some really big words that I did not know what they meant. I told him I was a straightforward type of person and asked him just tell me what I should expect.

I remember him sitting on a stool in front of me and saying the following. "Of the people who come to see me in your condition, a third get better with medication, a third stay the same with no improvement, and a third get heart transplants."

I don't remember the rest of the conversation. I walked back out of the lobby and looked at my family. My baby was sleeping in his stroller and my daughter was looking happy, carrying a red rose she got at the play. Of course my parents wanted to know what the doctor had said. I began crying and left for the restroom.

The next few days were really hard. I cycled through weakness, sadness, anger and fear. I could not make myself sleep unless my husband came to bed at the same time, even though it was usually very early.

Dr. Fellows wanted me to have a Coronary Angiogram to look for vessel disease, but I had to stabilize first. While I worked on this, Donavon researched my condition and found much helpful information, including the book, "Success with heart Failure" by Marc Silver, M.D. Reading this book probably marked the turning point.

I changed to a diet that limited salt and processed high-sodium foods. Donavon did more research on cooking without salt and finding low salt food. He found another book, "The No Salt, Lowest Sodium Cookbook" by Donald Gazzaniga, which helped me reduce my sodium intake even more. This new diet, along with the medication, helped me to see improvement.

Besides the diet and medication, the other big lifestyle change was reducing the stress in my life. I stepped down from my managerial position at work and was able to take one that still provided me with an outlet. I didn't want to feel sick and helpless. Continuing to work, even at a reduced position helped me feel like I was still contributing something since I couldn't take care of my family by myself. It was just too physical but I didn't have the pressure of actually running a branch and producing the loans. Further reducing the stress couldn't have been accomplished if I didn't have such a great support system from my husband, our parents, great day care providers and a flexible employer. I was able to find a balance where I could let my body heal and not feel guilty about being sick and unable to do everything.

I was told, and I knew that I needed to get some exercise but I was afraid because just normal everyday walking tired me out. Dr. Fellows gave me a referral for a cardiac rehab program. I had to wait until the beginning of the new year so that my new insurance company would cover it.

I started rehab at Auburn General Hospital in January. At first it was very discouraging because I couldn't do much without getting tired and my heart kept doing weird things. Sometimes it would flutter like something stuck in bicycle spokes. Then it would give a painful "thump" and get going right again. I had the physical therapists to watch over me, so I never gave up. Little by little, I started to get stronger and stronger. When I finished the rehab program, I was feeling pretty good about what I could do.

I was finally stable enough for the angiogram, but the test showed my vessels were normal. It didn't tell us any better why I came down with this condition. We just had to accept that we would likely never know the cause, but we had to continue treating the condition.

I continued with the diet and my visits to the cardiologist. I would have regular EKGs and echocardiograms. He would occasionally adjust the medications, but wanted me to realize that further improvement would be minimal. With every visit, he would inform me that my heart was not normal by any means but I kept on improving and to keep doing whatever I was doing, and we would put off talk of the need for a transplant for as long as possible. I thought to myself that if that was true I would be thankful for the improvement I did have. But, I always kept praying for just a little more improvement.

The best news came with my most recent echocardiogram. My ejection fraction was as high as 41%! This was much more improvement than even Dr. Fellows expected. The subject of transplants didn't even come up! He congratulated me, and I congratulated myself. He said again that further improvements would be minimal, and that I would never have a "normal" heart. But I'll gladly take minimal improvements like the one I saw that day.

All of the lifestyle changes are now just my new lifestyle. I take my medication. I watch the physical activity. I still have to watch my diet and my stress level and I know I should do more in the exercise department, but I'm very happy with where I'm at. I have two very active kids, ages seven and two. I'm working full time, and when Donavon is out of town I can manage it all by myself. It feels wonderful!

Teresa Skaggs - June 2004

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