Keeping Her Heart in the Game

Lake Wales Woman Works to Overcome Heart Disease

by PAUL CATALA

When Chands Leath was a young girl, she led an active life playing Little League softball and playing around her neighborhood in Lake Wales. 

But as Leath got older, she began to gain weight, developed asthma and as a teenager was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a hormonal disorder that causes enlarged ovaries with cysts on them

The result of these conditions eventually led to a diagnosis of idiopathic cardiomyopathyheart disease, uncontrolled hypertension and valvular disease. In her mid-30s, she also experienced congestive heart failure and takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as “Broken Heart Syndrome.” With this condition, the heart’s main pumping chamber changes shape, affecting the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively. 

At the time, Leath says the diagnosis of her Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome led to being treated for acne, a symptom of the condition along with mood swings and heavy, painful, lengthy menstrual cycles. In retrospect, she says had she been treated for the “Broken Heart Syndrome,” it may have helped her avoid her serious heart conditions. 

Leath, 46, who’s a retired medical secretary, says it soon after became obvious she needed to get help and make changes in her life.

“At the time, like any 30-year-old, I’d overlook the tiredness; I was working, had kids to take care of, I still had to go to that hospital to work for 12 hours a day. I overlooked a lot of things that I now know that had I slowed down and taken care of myself I probably would have known I had heart disease before I did,” she says.  

Now making a living in independent online jewelry sales, Leath, a 1992 graduate of Lake Wales High School, says she was also initially treated for heartburn, though the treatments never seemed to resolve what she thought was heartburn complications.

Leath says it wasn’t until July 9, 2012, that her life changed. That day she had stroke-like symptoms and drove herself to Lake Wales Hospital and was given the idiopathic cardiomyopathy diagnosis. 

The discovery of her “Broken Heart Syndrome” spurred Leath – who has two sons in their 20s – to work to stop her seemingly declining health problems from getting worse. She’s also working to reach other young women to help them avoid the same heart-health issues she’s experiencing.

Basically, Broken Heart Syndrome is a temporary heart condition often brought on by stressful situations and extreme emotions. According to the Mayo Clinic, the condition can also be brought on by physical illness or surgery. It’s synonymous with stress cardiomyopathy, takotsubo cardiomyopathy or apical ballooning syndrome.

According to the Mayo Clinic, people with Broken Heart Syndrome may have sudden chest pain or think they’re having a heart attack. The syndrome can affect just part of the heart, temporarily disrupting the heart’s normal pumping function. Other parts of the heart can continue to work normally or may have more forceful contractions. The symptoms of the syndrome can be treated, and this condition often reverses itself in a few days or weeks.

“My prognosis is poor. I have a weak heart, it does not function well and I am on the medications they feel are helping me the most,” she says. “I am seeing some of the best doctors and I try to do what they ask to maintain the best lifestyle I can with my heart disease.”

Aside from her doctors, including Winter Haven cardiologist Dr. Kollagunta Chandrasekhar, Leath credits her friends and family for helping her through the July 2012 to September 2013 period when she couldn’t work. 

“They nourished me back to health. Now, my stress levels are different. My children are grown, so I don’t need to be a providing parent,” says Leath, who for the past eight years has had electrocardiograms, heart catheterizations, stress tests, cardiac rehabilitations and an Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator implant. 

However, despite her heart-health setbacks, Leath says she strived to maintain the best health she can. She’s 5-feet, 8-inches tall and says she’s dropped from 313 pounds to 250 pounds through twice-weekly cardiac rehabilitation sessions, walking 30 minutes a day, not drinking alcohol and limiting her pork and beef intake. 

“I eat like everyone and try to monitor and eat more fruits and vegetables than anything else,” she says. 

Dr. Chandrasekhar, who has practiced in Winter Haven for 27 years, says the treatments for Leath’s conditions have greatly improved over the past 20 years and there is now much better medicine, exercises and medical devices available to help Leath and others like her. 

Chandrasekhar says everyone regardless of age needs to stay active, maintain a healthy diet and “watch your health from the get-go.”

“Thirty, 40 years ago, the use of physical activity and exercise to help heart problems, often hospitals did nothing. Now, there are cardiac rehab programs to get patients more exercise” he says. “The idea of physical activity is a good thing for all heart and vascular patients. Find what’s comfortable for you, those things you can do that can be part of your normal routine.”

Leath adds that a big part of finding that physical activity sweet spot is mental. She says she feels one has to be mentally stable enough to understand his or her heart is functioning so low that “you may qualify for Hospice.” 

“You have to be mentally stable to understand that although you have these diseases, you have to make a choice to live. The mental part of it is the hardest part of it. People forget about mental health when they’re going through things like this,” she states. 

Leath says despite her setbacks with heart health, she remains optimistic. She’s begun seeing a transplant doctor at Shands Hospital in Gainesville and says that doctor has been “amazed” at how she’s doing. She says she can see it, too.

“I look around at the clinics and see patients similar to me who aren’t functioning as well. It makes me very optimistic. I don’t look at the negatives of it, I look at the positives of it,” says Leath. 

Hoping to spare other women and men the heart troubles she’s experienced, Leath offers a few points of advice.

“Reach out for support if you’re having these issues. Don’t ignore the little signs. Our stress tolerance is so high. We all need to take to a breath and relax and go without things you don’t need — live within your means,” she suggests. “Establish a healthy mental and spiritual routine. That’s the only way you’re going to break through.”