Solving the Mystery of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy

August 12, 2022

At various times throughout her life, Elizabeth Wessman experienced shortness of breath and episodes of fainting or near-fainting. She had a tendency to fall asleep almost as soon as she sat down. The reason behind this was never clear. At 23, she was diagnosed with a benign heart murmur, but given no instructions other than to have it checked every five years. It wasn’t until Elizabeth was nearing 50 that something frightening happened.

She had recently moved to Hawai’i with her family and was starting to feel out of breath very often. One day, an episode of chest pain, weakness and heart palpitations sent her to the hospital, where certain tests led Elizabeth’s cardiologist to suspect that she may have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM).

HCM is a condition in which heart muscle becomes thickened and has difficulty pumping blood. It’s difficult to diagnose, as many people present few symptoms, and those that do occur could be associated with other conditions as well. Elizabeth was discharged from the hospital on a heart monitor for further analysis, but in the meantime, it was only becoming more difficult for her to breathe. Her anxiety mounted. When she went back for a follow-up appointment a few weeks later, the results were inconclusive.

Elizabeth needed answers. Fortunately, she learned about HCM Centers of Excellence, internationally recognized institutions that provide the expertise for a conclusive diagnosis. Because she planned to retire in Massachusetts, Elizabeth asked for a referral to Lahey Hospital & Medical Center and made the trip from Hawai’i to meet with Dr. Martin Maron of LHMC’s Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Center. After further testing, Dr. Maron said there was no doubt in his mind that she had HCM.

“I almost cried. Not because I was upset about having the condition, but because he was able to confidently give me a proper diagnosis,” Elizabeth said. “He talked with us for almost two hours explaining that I had obstructive HCM, answering my questions, and giving me medicine and procedure options to consider.”

As time went on, it became clear that the medicine Dr. Maron prescribed for Elizabeth wasn’t going to work for her. Elizabeth decided to go ahead with septal myectomy surgery, a complex cardiac procedure used to help thin down heart muscle in HMC patients. Dr. Prem Shekar, the chair of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery at LHMC, is one of only a few cardiac surgeons in the US with the skill set to perform this surgery at the highest level and would be performing Elizabeth’s surgery with his team.

“The only thing I really remember about the day of my surgery was Dr. Shekar coming to see me and shaking my hand,” Elizabeth said. “It was a really kind and personal touch that was unexpected, but appreciated during those lonely and nerve-wracking moments prior to receiving the sedation.”

Both Dr. Maron and Dr. Shekar called Elizabeth’s husband during and after the surgery to keep him in the loop. The procedure was a success! Elizabeth was discharged five days later, and Sarah Capano, the Physician’s Assistant for Dr. Shekar, met with her soon after to explain what she could expect over the next few months of recovery. She answered all of Elizabeth’s questions and promised to be available via phone and email if any more came up. “I am currently 8.5 weeks post-surgery and I don’t think a week has gone by without calling or emailing Sarah,” Elizabeth said. “My care and stay at LHMC were wonderful. I am still amazed at the kindness and patience of the nurses and other staff. Each staff member was honest and genuinely interested in my recovery.”

About two months after the operation, Elizabeth is feeling better every day. She’s excited to get back to exercising safely with the help of a physical therapist, and her experience has made her adamant about the importance of HCM Centers of Excellence such as LHMC’s Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Center.

“The more I learn about HCM and hear other people’s stories, the more I understand how blessed my family and I were,” she says. “Despite being 5,000 miles away from Burlington, Massachusetts, I continue to feel cared for and supported. I would recommend my team to anyone needing this surgery, even if it means an overseas trip.”

Learn more about the HMC Center of Excellence at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center.