Heart Center News

Marty Harris’s life is drastically different than it was a year ago – and it’s thanks to her two-year-old black lab, Adele. Since she was a child, Harris had been plagued by an unknown affliction that caused her to faint unexpectedly.

Canine companion aids vasovagal patient

25/Jun/2007

Marty Harris’s life is drastically different than it was a year ago – and it’s thanks to her two-year-old black lab, Adele.

Harris, a 36-year-old woman from Boston, used to leave her house every morning fearing that she would find herself in a hospital emergency room. Since she was a child, Harris had been plagued by an unknown affliction that caused her to faint unexpectedly.

It happened in almost any situation, and her problem had worsened to a point where she was afraid to leave her home. Yet, her doctors did not know how to help her. They couldn’t even tell her what was wrong.

“I couldn’t live a normal life,” says Harris. “I’d make plans to meet a friend or pick my son up from school, but on my way there I’d faint and be taken to the hospital for a battery of test I had undergone a thousand times. It got to a point where I was terrified I would faint and seriously hurt myself during the fall.”

Everything changed, however, with a new diagnosis and some creative thinking.

A New Diagnosis

After years of living with this unknown condition and having attempted many failed therapies, Harris came to the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center for an appointment with Dr. James Januzzi.

“She fainted several times in my office,” says Januzzi. “She was really having problems. Her pulse was down into the twenties and thirties.”

From her visits, Januzzi and Dr. Moussa Mansour, from the electrophysiology lab, diagnosed Harris with vasovagal syndrome. Vasovagal syndrome is a common cardiovascular affliction that causes sufferers – often young and otherwise healthy people – to faint unpredictably.

“It was a huge relief to be diagnosed,” says Harris.

Although vasovagal syndrome is considered common, Januzzi notes that at times it can be exceptionally difficult to treat. “Marty had an unusually bad version of vasovagal syndrome that was uncommonly severe. Furthermore, she was never able to recognize when a faint was coming, so it was hard for her to prepare herself for the possibility of losing consciousness,” Januzzi notes. None of the regularly prescribed medications seemed to help Harris’s condition, so the next common course of action was to consider implanting a pacemaker to regulate the beating of her heart. Neither Januzzi nor Harris considered this an ideal remedy.

A New Approach

Reflecting on her treatment options, Harris remembered a Dalmatian she once owned. That dog would fetch her inhaler and prevent her from standing up when she was having an asthma attack. Harris then discovered that some dog breeds are trained to sniff out cancer and detect seizures. With renewed hoped Harris discussed her finding with her doctor. “No one was using dogs to aid someone with recurrent vasovagal syndrome, but we agreed it would be worthwhile to try,” says Januzzi.

Harris approached organizations across the county, and Pennsylvania-based Canine Partners for Life invited her to visit to see if it could help. “I was amazed at how quickly the dogs reacted to my condition,” says Harris. “Almost immediately three out of the four dogs I met began sniffing the air. Each dog alerted in its own way, but Adele was the quickest to respond and very persistent.”

The initial trip was followed by a full month of intensive training for at least eight hours per day. Harris’s husband, Jeff, along with her mother, Pat, and friends, Mary and Alicia, took turns serving as her support team in Pennsylvania, while her in-laws stayed in Boston to care for the couple’s young son Ethan. “They all paused their lives to help me, and I could never thank them enough,” says Harris.

After several training trips, Canine Partners for Life sent Harris home with her new black lab Adele and with a renewed hope for life.

A New Life

Since bringing Adele home in June 2006, Harris has not fainted once. Instead, Adele is able to detect early signs of a fainting spell before she even experiences symptoms. This allows Adele to direct Harris into a “safe position.” Adele prompts her to sit or lay down and even lifts her legs, which helps her recover more quickly. Harris says this process happens between five and 20 times per days.

“My life and my family’s lives have changed tremendously,” says Harris. “My husband used to be afraid to leave me alone when he left for work, but now that Adele is watching over me he and my son are more comfortable with going about their lives.”

Adele now goes everywhere with Harris. They are companions on errands, at the gym and on long walks around Boston. Her fear of fainting in the street has disappeared.

“Marty has experienced such a dramatic turnaround,” says Januzzi. “So much good was done when she took control and found this unorthodox solution, and I can only imagine that there are other people who can be helped in the same way.”

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