Heart Failure After Cancer Treatment | Ellen’s Story

[♪♪♪] Ellen: Thirty years ago, I survived cancer. I had a loving family, a fulfilling job, and a great place down the shore. Life was good, really good, until congestive heart failure left me in a coma. When I was 19, and a freshman in college, I got very, very sick. I was out of school for a month and I was diagnosed with an advanced form of Hodgkin’s disease. They made arrangements for me to get chemotherapy and then radiation therapy. I finished my treatment. I finished college, finished law school. I was working. I got married. Bruce: I met Ellen on a trip to Israel.
She recently had back surgery at the time and I volunteered to help carry her bags and it’s a job I’ve been doing ever since. We were actually spending a few days down at the shore. – My husband and I had gone out to dinner with close friends. We went to bed and I just couldn’t get comfortable. Around one in the morning, I realized I was having trouble breathing.
So, I woke my husband and I told him to call an ambulance. I mean it’s a really scary thing to not be able to breathe. Bruce: They just could not get her heart rate down and said that the only alternative was to sedate her, never knowing that it would escalate to the level that it did. – The radiation that was done decades ago cured her Hodgkin’s disease but had a lot of collateral damage and left her with cardiac disease. Bruce: We got back to Philadelphia and the original hospital that she had been in was basically treating a lot of the symptoms but not getting to the underlying problem.
One day it was the heart. The next day it was the lungs. – Before I got to Penn, I had been shocked three times because they thought I was in arrhythmia once. I had a cardiac ablation, three or four heart catheterizations. I had a pleurodesis. I had a chest tube for three weeks. – You know, we basically said, we can’t go through life this way. We need somebody to get a little more aggressive on the care. – Ellen came to us, incredibly ill. When you get to that point, the best option is if there is a predominant structural problem with the heart that can be fixed or replaced.
There was in Ellen’s case. – Dr. Acker is awesome. He’s just got so much warmth and compassion in him. He’s the only doctor that every time he came to see me in the hospital, he would just plop himself down on the edge of the hospital bed. You know, sit down next to me, hold my hand, talk to me. He always made me feel like everything was going to be okay.
In the end, we felt Ellen’s predominant problem was her valve, and that with a new valve, we could increase her quality of life and keep her out of the hospital. – He had a plan and it was the first time that somebody actually had a plan of attack for this thing. Ellen: I felt hope which I hadn’t felt for several months at that point. – About 12:30, Dr. Acker came out and said, “We’re all done.
Everything went beautifully. Just as we planned and I don’t see any issues.” Ellen: I got out of all the hospitals and we finally got back to the shore and I wanted to get on the beach but there was no way I could walk on the beach. So, they actually drove me down to the beach and they got a beach wheelchair from the lifeguards. Gradually, I could walk down our street and then I could cross the street to the beach and then I could walk onto the beach.
And by last spring, I could walk from our house without stopping and down to the water. It was just so wonderful that I could do this again. Dr. Acker: Ellen really took off after six months and she’s continued to improve. As a heart surgeon, sometimes, you can save someone’s life, but it’s not just saving someone’s life. It’s how you save it, what life you’ve allowed them to continue to live, and that’s why I went into the field and do what I do. 
My name is Ellen Goodman, and I am a miracle. I really thought that my life was over due to congestive heart failure until I got to Penn, and they have given me back everything that I care about. To see more stories like mine, subscribe to Penn Medicine’s YouTube channel.