Glenda Sexauer, 59, was diagnosed with heart failure when she was 46. But it took nearly a year—all while her heart health was steadily declining—for doctors to realize what was wrong.
She had several symptoms, including relentless fatigue, bloating, nausea, and weight gain she couldn’t explain. Initially, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition and pneumonia before her doctor referred her to a cardiologist. She was hospitalized for several weeks and had a pacemaker and defibrillator placed in her chest. Her road to recovery took several years—she still takes multiple medications each day and relies on her pacemaker—but she credits her active lifestyle for getting her through it all.
Heart failure affects about 3.6 million women in the United States—but there is a huge disparity in research between men and women with heart failure. Nearly 50% of people admitted to the hospital with heart failure are women,1 yet only 25% of women are involved in heart failure studies.2
After her experience, Sexauer became a community educator with WomenHeart, a nonprofit organization that educates women with heart disease about the signs of heart failure. Here’s her story, as told to writer Erica Sweeney.
I’ve always been active. I exercised regularly, ran marathons, and once did a 2-day, 150-mile bike ride. But, when I was 46, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling like myself anymore. I had gained some weight and was tired all the time. I slept a lot and felt bloated. I just knew something wasn’t right. I went to my gynecologist first, thinking my symptoms could be pointing to menopause, but my hormone testing ruled that out. Then, I researched my symptoms online and thought it might be my thyroid acting up. My doctor diagnosed me with the autoimmune disease Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition that can cause symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, and muscle weakness. I thought, “OK, that’s what it is.”
I continued feeling tired all the time, though, despite taking medication for Hashimoto’s. I had a lot going on in my life then, too. My son had just gone away to college and my mother-in-law was living with us. I was working as a vice president of a financial services company. My mom was also really sick; she had Alzheimer’s and was nearing the final phase of her life. So, I thought maybe I was just experiencing anxiety.
Then, I started feeling a funny sensation in my chest when lying down. It was kind of like I could hear my heart gurgle. A couple of nights I had to sit up to sleep. After my mother passed away, something else gave me pause. I was at her funeral when I coughed up some stuff that didn’t look right. I saw my primary care doctor and told him I thought I had pneumonia. He confirmed I had a little bit of fluid in my lungs and prescribed medication. I never had a fever, which, looking back now, was a big hint that I didn’t have pneumonia. No one ever thought I had heart disease.
Then, I finally got a heart failure diagnosis.
To celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, my husband and I planned a trip to Hawaii. We decided to go, even though I wasn’t feeling great. I couldn’t eat much and felt nauseated. When we got there, I slept so much. I had to sit and rest after walking up just two steps. We had all these activities planned and had to keep canceling because I just couldn’t do them—and that’s not like me. On the day we came home, I put all of my symptoms into a health checker online and it suggested I had a heart problem. At the time, we laughed because I was really pretty healthy.