Medical Team and 'Heart Sisters' Help Active Mom Make Strides

February 23, 2018 12:00 PM

A strong woman faces her health challenges head-on with support from Michigan Medicine and a special group of women.

Sarah Witting runs with a purpose: to promote heart health and the power of strength in numbers.

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In recent years, the 33-year-old Michigan Medicine patient has participated in several races in and around Detroit. She’s often accompanied by her mother, Angie, and other female heart disease patients a tightknit group Sarah calls her “heart sisters.”

These sisters have become a support system since Sarah was diagnosed with neurocardiogenic syncope, a condition in which the heart rate and blood pressure rapidly drop, causing blood flow to the brain to slow. An affected individual may become lightheaded, faint or lose consciousness.

Pain, fear or anxiety can cause neurocardiogenic syncope. It could also occur after prolonged standing or heat exposure.

Years of struggle

Sarah’s health challenge began as a high school student, when she learned her heart rate was slow, often causing her to pass out.

That didn’t keep her from earning an engineering degree from Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, which helped launch her career with an automotive firm. But when Sarah had a fainting episode at work, her supervisor insisted she seek treatment.

SEE ALSO: 12 Heart Attack Risk Factors You Can’t Ignore [Infographic]

At age 21, she received a pacemaker to keep her heart beating faster and allow her to continue an active lifestyle of running and fitness training. The device is typically placed in the upper chest under the skin with a wire threaded into the heart through a vein to allow electrical signals to go back and forth between the heart and the pacemaker.

Pacemakers are most commonly used to treat bradycardia (a slow heart rate that can cause loss of consciousness) and heart block, which occurs if an electrical signal is slowed or disrupted as it moves through the heart.

Sarah later married and was living a relatively healthy life when she became pregnant in 2012. Despite a high-risk pregnancy, Sarah gave birth to a baby girl.

In the months that followed, however, the young mother experienced abnormal echocardiograms and electrocardiograms, along with bradycardia and tachycardia (rapid heartbeats).

Dedicated team support

As a result, Sarah underwent surgery for a second pacemaker that can more closely mimic her heart’s normal rate and rhythm.

“Because of Sarah’s underlying condition, her pacemaker helps her heart rate adjust as a supplemental device,” says Laura Horwood, clinical lead for Michigan Medicine’s Electrophysiology (EP) Device Program, where Sarah is a patient.

The program includes 11 device nurses and two nurse practitioners to educate patients and manage all aspects of cardiac device care.

Together, they’re responsible for monitoring and following more than 5,000 patients who have pacemakers and implantable cardiodiverter devices to ensure the equipment is working properly at all times.

“We see a complex group of patients,” says Horwood, noting that each has different needs.

Running to win

Individual monitoring and follow-up was the reassurance Sarah needed.

“My worry is gone now because someone is watching out for me,” she says of her Michigan Medicine team. “I get a call every quarter from the EP Device Program team with an update on my condition, and I can email them at any time with questions.

SEE ALSO: How Sports Cardiologists Help Athletes Train and Play Safely

“I have a great team that is working to help me.”

Sarah remains active, running 5K races with her mother and 5-year-old daughter, Emily, as well as doing fitness training and cycling.

Her heart sisters, meanwhile, supply a major emotional boost: “the strength and encouragement to finish every race and keep striving to be better.”

Learn more about pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators here