Kenneth Shelton, MD, is a critical care physician and cardiothoracic anesthesiologist in the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and the medical director of the Mass General Corrigan Minehan Heart Center Intensive Care Unit.
As a wife, mother and artist, Marty longs to live an adventurous, joy-filled life. But for much of her life, a misdiagnosed and misunderstood heart condition kept these dreams out of reach. For as long as she can remember, Marty has been prone to fainting, intimately familiar with the helplessness that accompanies waking up, concussed and confused, on an ambulance cot.
Marty’s helplessness was intensified, she says, by long-unanswered questions she had about her condition.
“I knew there was something wrong with my heart, but I had been misdiagnosed since I was an infant. I had no name for my condition nor had I had any successful treatments.”
While she was in her 30s, Marty fainted on the floor of her son’s childcare center. As she came to, dazed and once again concussed, Marty knew she needed answers; she needed hope.
Marty brought her questions to Dr. James Januzzi, cardiologist and director of the Dennis and Marilyn Barry Fellowship in Cardiology Research at Mass General. Dr. Januzzi quickly identified Marty with a malignant form of neurocardiogenic syncope, a severe, recurrent form of fainting.
Together, Marty and her doctor sought to establish a tailored treatment plan, with little immediate success. “The challenge,” Dr. Januzzi explains, “is that these events may occur unpredictably, and if they were predictable, one theoretically could take steps to try and prevent them, such as quickly lying down and elevating one’s legs.”
Dr. Januzzi’s crucial insight proved to be the key to Marty’s management of her illness.
Marty and her doctor, aware of the role service dogs have played for patients with other medical illnesses, sought to find a service dog that could alert Marty when she was vulnerable to fainting. An institution in Pennsylvania called Canine Partners for Life was enlisted to help and introduced Marty to Adele, a 2-year old black Labrador. Though no service dogs had yet been trained to detect heart conditions, Adele quickly developed an uncanny ability to sense when Marty’s circulation was growing weak. With Adele by her side, Marty no longer lived in fear of fainting. Her life was changed.
Nine years later, Adele has grown old, and her retirement from service draws near. Though it pains Marty to accept Adele’s impending retirement, she has reluctantly begun to welcome a new service dog, Hector, into the family. In this midst of this challenging transition, Marty is secure in the knowledge that Dr. Januzzi is always there to provide his support.
“It [makes] all the difference to me psychologically knowing a trained professional was on my side,” Marty recently affirmed. “I am still searching for answers to my other medical issues but have confidence that I am in good hands.”
Learn more about Marty, Adele and Hector’s story here.
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