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What is Congestive Heart Failure?

And how do I move on after a diagnosis?

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Q: With three children grown and out of the house, my husband of 25 years and I have been looking forward to traveling and enjoying the world in a way that we couldn’t when we had little kids. But everything came to a screeching halt last week when my husband was hospitalized with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure—I’m terrified and in disbelief. What can I do to help him through this and ensure that we have many more happy, active years together?


“Worried Wife”

Dear Worried Wife:

I hear your concerns and they are certainly valid. Many people feel the way you do when they hear the words “congestive heart failure.” I know that this news is scary and difficult to process, but let me explain what happens when a person experiences congestive heart failure and the pathway to care.

The common causes of congestive heart failure include coronary artery disease (blockages in the arteries), obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and in some cases, an inherited condition. Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart muscle is unable to adequately pump oxygenated blood to your organs and muscles, creating congestion, or extra fluid, which can damage the organs. When fluid collects in the lungs, a person may experience difficulty breathing. It can also build up throughout the body and cause swelling in the legs, ankles and feet. A person with congestive heart failure may feel tired and lose their appetite. In its advanced stages, just rolling over in bed can cause shortness of breath. It is not uncommon for a person to be hospitalized for a week or two when they are first diagnosed in order to stabilize the situation and begin treatment.

Congestive heart failure is treated with daily medications that help the heart rest, repair, and recover while preventing fluid retention. In addition, lifestyle changes—including a heart-healthy, low-salt, fluid-restricted diet—are extremely important. Once your husband is released from the hospital, he will be asked to track his weight and symptoms daily. Once he is feeling up to it, his physician will likely recommend cardiac rehabilitation—a supervised exercise program.

If your husband stays on track, he should soon be able to resume normal activities, including going back to work. But congestive heart failure is a chronic condition, and even people who are stable can relapse, so it will be important for him to follow his treatment plan.

You are part of a crucial safety net around your husband. He may have ongoing fears related to his health, but know that your presence will be reassuring and comforting. Your efforts will help alleviate the stress and anxiety many people with the condition experience. You can help by emptying your cupboards of high-salt foods and aiming to prepare heart-healthy family meals. Perhaps you’ll remind him to take his medication or track his symptoms and help get him to his frequent medical appointments.

The encouraging news is that with proper medical management and follow-up, many people with congestive heart failure live an active and robust life. It may feel stressful at first, but you’ll likely find that you both adjust to life with the condition. You’ll play an important role in supporting your husband as he recovers. He’s lucky to have you.

“With proper medical management and follow-up, many people with congestive heart failure live an active and robust life.”
Dr. Gerin Stevens, medical director of the Heart Failure and Transplant Program at The Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital at North Shore University Hospital
Dr. Gerin Stevens, Cardiologist | Photo credit: Donna Alberico/The Well

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Published March 20th, 2018

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