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New treatments help people with pulmonary hypertension

Posted May 19, 2008
Updated May 20, 2008

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— Some illnesses are difficult to recognize and can take months to diagnose. That's the case with pulmonary hypertension. Left untreated, the disease is life-threatening.

Fifteen years ago, there were hardly any treatments for pulmonary hypertension, but that has changed. 

“I just thought really that I was just out of shape from the pregnancy,”  Donna Kearney said.

Kearney suffers from pulmonary hypertension. She said she first noticed that she was often short of breath.

Then chest pain and fainting pointed to something more serious. It was three months, however, before Kearney  knew she had pulmonary hypertension.

“The lungs have a separate circulation, and the pressure sometimes gets high there. You can't really detect that without doing detailed tests,” Duke pulmonologist Dr. Victor Tapson said.

Those tests are an echo cardiogram and heart catheterization, Tapson added.

The disease is more common among people with other lung disease, like emphysema.

Kearney's was a rare case with no known cause, however. She read all she could about it and learned it can lead to heart failure.

“And what I read was that you had a three- to five-year life expectancy. so it was very frightening,” Kearney said.

Some patients take oral medications, but Donna responded well to intravenous therapy.

She wears a small IV at all times that pumps a drug called Remodulin into her bloodstream.

“I can do most of what I want to do as long as I really pay attention to how I'm feeling,” Kearney said.

That includes a few hours a week doing what she loves most: teaching.

“One of the things I really hated about getting this disease was that it just sort of took away that part of me that was a teacher,” Kearney said.

Treating pulmonary hypertension with intravenous medications can cost more than $100,000 a year.

For some people, the disease could lead to the need for a lung transplant.

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