Sharon Stewart is no stranger to many of southeast Michigan’s healthcare facilities. For years, the now 64-year-old went from doctor to doctor, trying to find someone who could diagnose her increasingly debilitating condition, which was causing severe symptoms, including high blood pressure, excruciating migraines, bleeding in her eyes and fainting spells. She was finally diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension (PH) — high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries of the lungs. PH can have no known cause, can be genetic or can be caused by drugs or toxins. It can also occur because of an underlying disease or health issue.
A frightening diagnosis, three PH treatment options
Sharon’s doctor told her pulmonary hypertension was a rare and fatal condition and gave her two years to live. “He didn’t know there was a treatment for it,” says Sharon.
Afraid and frustrated, Sharon was referred to the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center, where she met Dr. Vallerie McLaughlin, director of the U-M Pulmonary Hypertension Program. “I asked Dr. McLaughlin if she could fix me. She said, ‘No, but I can help you,’” recalls Sharon. Those were the only words she needed to hear.
The help came in the way of three pulmonary hypertension treatment options for Sharon: Flolan (intravenously), subcutaneous (SC) Remodulin, or a chance to participate in a yearlong study for intravenous Remodulin. Sharon initially chose Remodulin via IV and immediately noticed a change in her health. She eventually transitioned to SC Remodulin, with good results.
Still getting better
“Eleven years later and I’m still getting better,” Sharon says. Getting better means going from barely able to walk to riding bicycles with her grandkids and walking “faster and farther than a healthy woman of my age,” Sharon says proudly. “I’m very active and self-sufficient now, thanks to Dr. McLaughlin. I can do my own shopping, cleaning and laundry.” She’s also able to take trips via car or airplane, something she wouldn’t dream of doing before being treated at the University of Michigan. Sharon says she’s feeling so good that she and three friends are planning a two-month road trip to Alaska in the spring.
Mentoring to make a difference
This new lease on life has made Sharon aware of the need to help others who are suffering with pulmonary hypertension. She is a mentor with an independent PH support group, a mentor for new patients at the University of Michigan and an active member of a U-M support group for patients struggling with pulmonary hypertension. Sharon says she found great comfort in the U-M support group after her first meeting.
“PH patients don’t always look sick,” she says. “We have ups and downs, and people don’t understand what we’re going through. In the support group, we exchange ideas and feelings and compare treatments. We help each other, especially the ‘newbies’. You’re so scared when you find out about the disease. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome when you’re first diagnosed. If I can give one patient hope, it’s my way of giving back.”
Sharon would love to see a cure for PH, but if that day doesn’t come in time for her, she says, “I’m happy where I am.”
Take the next steps
- Read about another patient living with pulmonary hypertension.
- Drug combo reduces risk for pulmonary hypertension hospitalizations.
- Cross country walker visits Ann Arbor on trek for Pulmonary Hypertension Association.
The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardivascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at www.umcvc.org.