Life Anew

Issue 28 | November 2017

“I was sick for five years,” says Toni Williams, of Temple. “I was weak, I couldn’t walk very far, and I had trouble breathing. I was so close to not being here.” Mrs. Williams was an otherwise healthy woman who, like many people her age, was enjoying life, including her grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, with her husband, Pat, of 34 years. Then, in 2011, her symptoms seemed to spring out of nowhere.

After a series of tests that included a chest X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Robert C. Scott, III, MD, PhD, a cardiologist at Scott & White Medical Center in Temple, diagnosed Mrs. Williams with sarcoidosis of the heart. The medical community doesn’t know what exactly causes this debilitating inflammatory disease, though it is most often found in the lungs and can be very difficult to diagnose.

Mrs. Williams says, “I saw a lot of doctors before I saw Dr. Scott. I’m so grateful I found him.” Dr. Scott explained to her that sarcoidosis could be contracted from a virus, but it was very unusual to find it in the heart. This rare form of the disease can be fatal and required immediate treatment.

Mrs. Williams’ condition was especially fragile. A buildup of granulomas, or masses in her heart, produced an irregular heartbeat. Though there is no cure for sarcoidosis, a pacemaker was able to treat her symptoms, at least temporarily. Mrs. Williams eventually began to experience heart failure, but because of her fragile frame and increasing weight loss, Dr. Scott and his team agreed that she was too weak for further invasive treatment such as a heart pump. Mrs. Williams was then put on the list for a heart transplant.

“She was pretty dire,” says Mr. Williams. “But we had a great team of doctors and nurses who cared for Toni.” The team also included cardiologists Allan Anderson, MD, and Gregory Dehmer, MD, vice president of cardiovascular services for Central Texas, nurses and other caregivers who ensured Mrs. Williams had the right care as her life hung in the balance.

In less than two months, Mrs. Williams was on the road to recovery with a new heart. Chittoor Bhaskar Sai-Sudhakar, MD, division chief of cardiovascular surgery and surgical director of the heart transplant program at Scott & White Medical Center – Temple, performed the heart transplant. “The first thing he said to me was, “You’re going to get a beautiful heart and I want you to take care of it,’” Mrs. Williams recalls. Because sarcoidosis cannot be cured, it is important that Mrs. Williams continues to follow a good diet, exercise, and avoid allergens. She also will take anti-rejection medicine for the rest of her life.

“They’re all my heroes,” she says, patting her heart. “It was a long road and sometimes I felt like I was falling apart. I get emotional now, because I’m here and I almost wasn’t. I’m just enjoying my life now. I wake up every day, and I think about the little girl now living in me, and I’m so grateful. Everyone has just been awesome,” she says.

Donating has taken on a special dual meaning for the Williamses, who are advocates of organ donation and the new transplantation suite that will open in the new Surgical Sciences Building. “I’d recommend that anyone go to Baylor Scott & White, and consider donating,” says Mrs. Williams. “They save so many lives. There are no words to say how thankful I am.”

What is Sarcoidosis?

A handful of people in every 10,000 are diagnosed with sarcoidosis. There is no known cause, but experts suspect it is an autoimmune disease, which means that the body may begin to “attack” itself. Diagnostic tests that include chest X-ray, lung function tests, and others are often utilized to confirm a sarcoidosis diagnosis. Most sarcoidosis patients experience symptoms such as fatigue, persistent cough, shortness of breath, swollen joints, blurred vision, weight loss, and more.

There is no cure for sarcoidosis, and its severity varies greatly. In some cases the disease goes away on its own, while in others it can cause organ damage. Lifelong management of the disease includes proper diet and exercise, avoiding smoking, regular check-ups, and in some cases medication.

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