Alicia’s Story: Cardiomyopathy Treatment Restores Active Lifestyle

Alicia Starks at first thought her coughing, shortness of breath, and exhaustion were symptoms of COVID-19. Testing showed otherwise and, after a heart CT scan, emergency department personnel sent her to a pulmonologist.

“I got to the point where I just couldn’t do anything,” says the normally energetic mother of three adult children and soon-to-be grandmother.

When her condition worsened over the next four months, her children urged her to again visit an emergency department.

This time, in March 2021, a second CT found the source of her health challenges.

Alicia’s heart was enlarged, and she was admitted immediately to Miami Valley Hospital. While talking with cardiologist Robert Bulow, DO, she started connecting the dots and told him about a family history of cardiomyopathy.

She’d lost her brother at age 44 after he was diagnosed originally with pneumonia. The death was due to cardiomyopathy. “Things started coming together for me in talking with Dr. Bulow. It was in the family, both men and women,” Alicia says.

Her heart ejection fraction — the amount of blood in the left ventricle being pushed out with each heartbeat — was low. The higher the number, the better the performance.

“The doctor says my heart was functioning at 19 percent, and the average is at 50 to 60 percent,” Alicia says.

After learning of Alicia’s family history of cardiomyopathy, Dr. Bulow put her on a course of medications.

She also was fitted with a LifeVest, a personal defibrillator worn by a patient at risk for sudden cardiac arrest. The device monitors the heart continuously. If the patient goes into a life-threatening arrhythmia, the vest delivers a shock treatment to restore the heart to normal rhythm.

She wore the vest for seven months. “My heart is now stronger. When they did another echocardiogram, it was back to 50,” she says recently. “If I didn’t show improvement, they would have had to surgically implant the defibrillator.”

She is back to work as transportation supervisor for the Trotwood schools but not yet driving a bus, a duty she previously handled as needed. “My boss wants me to wait to see the doctor again to make sure I am fine,” Alicia says. She looks forward to the upcoming appointment to see if she is “good to go.”

Cardiomyopathy is “unfortunately commonly seen,” Dr. Bulow says.

“It can be acquired or familial,” he says. Symptoms often include shortness of breath, fatigue, and abnormal rhythms that can lead to lightheadedness, passing out or sudden death, he says.

If the medical therapy done while the patient wears the LifeVest does not strengthen the heart, an implantable permanent defibrillator will replace the temporary device, Dr. Bulow says.

“Alicia demonstrated an impressive improvement in the overall strength of the heart muscle following a cardiac catheterization and medical therapy,” he says.

Alicia says she feels great and is glad she was able to work with Dr. Bulow.

“He is very personable, very hands on, and very specific in his explanations,” she says.

Her advice to other people is to take their health seriously and to ask questions.

“Try not to get frustrated enough where you say, ‘Forget it,’” she says.

Contact Us

Every moment of your life depends on a strong, healthy heart. The Premier Health cardiology and vascular services team is here to help you, each beat of the way, with prevention, diagnostic, treatment, and rehabilitation services in our hospitals, outpatient centers, and medical offices across Southwest Ohio.