Heart Failure Comes as Shock to Avid Runner

As a U.S. Air Force medic for 23 years, Charles Williams made fitness part of his daily routine, sometimes running 15 miles a day.

In his mid-50s, Williams was suddenly unable to run a single city block due to shortness of breath and fatigue. He also had to sleep sitting up or fluid would collect in his chest and throat. That prompted the Omaha resident to seek medical attention, and Williams learned that he was experiencing heart failure.

“It was a shock because I was at the point where I was running five miles in the morning, five miles at lunch and five miles in the evening,” said Williams, now age 66. “Not being able to do that really threw me for a loop.”

CHI Health Cardiologist Joseph Thibodeau, MD, first saw Williams six years ago and diagnosed him with familial type cardiomyopathy. When medical therapy didn’t improve Williams’ condition, he received an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) and had good results for several years.

But in 2015, Williams once again experienced fatigue, and tests showed his kidneys were starting to fail because his heart was unable to maintain the necessary blood flow.

With Williams’ situation becoming dire, he was assessed for and received a left ventricular assist device (LVAD). The battery-operated mechanical pump is surgically implanted and helps the left ventricle pump. Sagar Damle, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at CHI Health Nebraska Heart in Lincoln, performed the LVAD implant in March 2016.

“Charles immediately felt better,” Dr. Thibodeau said. “He is able to do things on his own and his kidneys have recovered. It’s a success story because Charles had multi-organ failure and now he can go on and seek a heart transplant, if he so desires.”

While Williams’ daily routine no longer includes 15-mile runs, he participates in cardiac rehabilitation at CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center - Bergan Mercy on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Other days, Williams walks 1 1/2 miles round trip to a local grocery store.

Williams said he’s eternally grateful for the collaborative care he received from Dr. Thibodeau. Without the LVAD implant, patients with Class IV heart failure — as Williams had — typically have a one-year survival rate of less than 50 percent.