The holiday season is much brighter this year for Laura Floeckhler, 45, from Orlando, Florida. Laura was diagnosed last Christmas with pulmonary hypertension, a rare disorder of the lungs affecting about 30 in every one million people.
Laura's symptoms started earlier in 2014, when the mother of three began experiencing shortness of breath. Then her legs and ankles began to swell.
As Laura's symptoms worsened, walking became such a struggle that she began filling a cooler with snacks to keep by her bed. "At one point I couldn't walk 10 feet from my bedroom to the kitchen or living room," she says. "Putting on a pair of pants would knock me out for the rest of the day."
On Christmas day 2014, Laura was taken by ambulance to an Orlando community hospital, where she received the diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension. The diagnosis put her on a path to Mayo Clinic and regaining her life.
Difficult to diagnose
Laura was referred to Mayo Clinic's Florida campus, where she met Charles Burger, M.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Pulmonary Hypertension and Vascular Diseases. The center is one of 26 designated centers recognized by the Pulmonary Hypertension Association for its integrative approach to patient care, research and education. With a team of experts, including cardiologists, pulmonologists, interventional radiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons, Mayo is one of the largest centers for treatment of pulmonary hypertension based on patient volumes.
"At one point I couldn't walk 10 feet from my bedroom to the kitchen or living room. Putting on a pair of pants would knock me out for the rest of the day." - Laura Floeckhler
"There are five different categories of pulmonary hypertension, so this can be a very difficult disease to diagnose and treat," says Dr. Burger, who likens the condition to "a kink in a water hose." That causes pressure to build, forcing the right side of the heart to work harder to increase blood flow to the lungs. Eventually, the heart enlarges and fails, Dr. Burger says.
Sadly, many patients with pulmonary hypertension are misdiagnosed because a number of conditions have similar symptoms, and the disease has often progressed by the time it is accurately identified. Because of this, some patients require a heart transplant or a heart-lung transplant.
"I didn't know how complicated pulmonary hypertension was until I got it and began researching it," says Laura, who on further testing, was found to have a subtype of the condition that causes blood clots in the lungs.
A surprising new option
Though pulmonary hypertension is a progressive disorder, some patients with Laura's specific condition are eligible for a complex procedure known as pulmonary thromboendarterectomy, where surgeons scrape the clots from the pulmonary arteries. With the procedure, doctors said Laura could essentially be healed.
Getting her active lifestyle back was within reach, but Laura feared the worst. Though she hadn't realized it before, Laura learned that another member of her family was diagnosed with the same condition at age 16 – but passed away due to complications.
Cardiothoracic surgeon Kevin Landolfo, M.D., assured Laura that technology had improved in the past 30 years. Still, thinking about Dr. Landolfo stopping her blood flow and cooling her body to 16-18 degrees Celsius to remove the clots was frightening.
"I was afraid I wouldn't wake up," Laura admits. But she opted to proceed, and in August 2015, underwent the surgery.
During the procedure, Dr. Landolfo removed the majority of blood clots and scarring from Laura's lungs. "We allowed her lungs to improve, her pressures to go down, and that allows her heart to function in a much more efficient way," says Dr. Landolfo.
Almost immediately post-surgery, Laura could tell the difference. "Just taking a breath was easier," she recalls. And she was up and walking around the hospital floor the first afternoon.
Today, Laura is thrilled to be celebrating the holidays with friends and family, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the season. She's able to walk freely, is back at work and is looking forward to adventures with her first grandchild.
"I love Mayo Clinic and what they did for me," she says. "I feel normal … I feel like I can do it all."
Learn more about Laura's story and the surgery in the following video.