One Woman’s Shortness of Breath Turned Out to Be Heart Failure

Updated: Feb. 10, 2021

This woman thought her symptoms were due to asthma and allergies. In fact, she had a chronic condition called heart failure or congestive heart failure.

Michele NorrisCourtesy Michele Norris

Two years ago, Michelle Norris, 63, of Knoxville, Tennessee, began struggling to walk the short distance from the parking lot to her workplace. She had to make periodic stops to catch her breath, but she attributed it to a return of her childhood asthma and allergies. Norris didn’t realize she was experiencing symptoms of a chronic and serious heart condition known as heart failure (or congestive heart failure).

“I was fine once I sat down, but any walking at all, even to use the restroom, left me out of breath,” Norris explains. The odd part was that her feet and legs were swelling. But she explained that away: “I had three surgeries on my feet, so I was used to swelling.” There was a difference, she realized—”I couldn’t feel my shins or calves, and I had to take my shoes off at work.”

A visit to her doctor confirmed Norris’s initial suspicion: The doctor also thought her allergies and asthma were acting up again. But a prescription inhaler and diuretic did nothing. “I was getting much worse, the medicine didn’t help the swelling and shortness of breath at all.” Another trip to the doctor led to a referral to a cardiologist who scheduled Norris for an echocardiogram (a type of ultrasound for the heart) the following week.

The cardiologist finally figured out what had been plaguing Norris. “After the test, he told me that I had heart failure. I was scared and began to cry—I lost my mother from the same thing twelve years earlier.”

Norris’s symptoms are typical of heart failure, says Beth Davidson, DNP, ACNP, CCRN, CHFN, director of the Heart Failure Disease Management Program at HCA Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. “Heart failure is a chronic, progressive condition in which the heart becomes unable to pump sufficient blood to keep up with the body,” she says. “With treatment, it can be managed, but there is no cure. Symptoms can come and go, like shortness of breath, fatigue, and swelling or fluid retention—but the diagnosis remains.” According to Davidson, heart failure alone accounts for 900,000 hospitalizations per year; that adds up to almost two per minute.

Norris’s cardiologist prescribed her a medication that’s approved for a type of heart failure; she also began taking two diuretics to relieve her swelling. “After I began the treatment, I lost 17 pounds of water weight and was able to walk to my car after work without stopping.”

Today, Norris has made changes to her lifestyle—she eats better and stays active—to help protect her heart. “I limit the amount of sodium and salt in my diet, even if I’m eating out at a restaurant. I listen to my body more now, and I ask questions at every doctor appointment.” (Check out the 45 things heart doctors do to protect their own hearts.)

Heart failure affects around 6.5 million Americans and can be caused by coronary artery disease, congenital heart defects, damage to the heart muscle, and other diseases. “Many patients experience acute symptomatic episodes and end up in the hospital. Chronic heart failure is complex, and there are different types,” explains Davidson.

The bottom line, she stresses, is to take the issue seriously and talk to your doctor about any suspicious symptoms—especially if there’s a history of heart trouble in your family. (Don’t miss the 12 heart health breakthroughs that could save your life.)