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Lacrosse star plays on with pulmonary hypertension

Heart threat to young women often misdiagnosed

Blurry vision and chest pain during lacrosse training were the first signs of heart trouble for Katie Mezwa.

Blurry vision and chest pain during lacrosse training were the first signs of heart trouble for Katie Mezwa.

Katie Mezwa lives with a kind of high blood pressure that’s known to impact women who may otherwise appear healthy.

Rather than high blood pressure throughout her body, Katie has pulmonary hypertension which is high blood pressure in the loop of vessels connecting the heart and lungs. The heart ends up working harder to pump blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen.

With shortness of breath as the main symptom the condition is easy to be misdiagnosed. Katie’s first sign of heart trouble:  blurry vision, fatigue and chest pain during a routine run with her lacrosse team.

A long path to answers included months of tests and appointments to find out why the active young woman had trouble performing.

Dr. Vallerie McLaughlin

Dr. Vallerie McLaughlin

Rare disease gains attention

With treatment led by Dr. Vallerie McLaughlin, director of the University of Michigan Pulmonary Hypertension Program, Katie manages her pulmonary hypertension with a daily calcium channel blocker to help dilate her blood vessels for easier blood flow.

While a rare disease, researchers are taking a closer look at the molecular basis for PH and testing easier-to-use drugs that can signal vasodilation in the blood vessels in the lung and improve heart function.

Since the diagnosis, Katie says she’s focusing on living a normal 22-year-old life, which includes playing for the University of Michigan Womens Club Lacrosse team as the team earned its first national title. Katie earned the Women’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association Division 1 Player of the Year Award.

“To me, that award is a testament to my hard work and dedication and a great reminder that even a heart condition can’t hold me back,” says the 2015 U-M graduate whose future goals involve improving global health.

Causes and symptoms

A congenital heart defect, heart valve problems or other health issues can trigger pulmonary hypertension. When there are no other underlying heart and lung disease or other illnesses, it is called primary pulmonary hypertension. Primary PH is reported most often in women between ages 21 and 40.

Pulmonary hypertension can make everyday activities exhausting and lead to life-threatening heart failure.  Patients with PH may experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath

Comprehensive evaluation with right-heart catheterization, pulmonary function test, ventilation perfusion lung scan to measure air and blood flow to the lungs, and heart tests can lead to the right diagnosis and treatment options.

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