Out of Breath: Raising Awareness of Pulmonary Hypertension



By Jennifer C. Yates and Chuck Finder

Theresa Whigham lived with the lung disease sarcoidosis for years and thought that was to blame when one day at work in 2010 she experienced difficulty breathing as she walked to the cafeteria.

“I felt completely out of breath, like I was going to collapse,” said Whigham, 51, of McKees Rocks.

After tests, though, doctors determined Whigham’s sarcoidosis had affected her heart and diagnosed her with pulmonary hypertension (PH), a rare lung disorder affecting the pulmonary arteries that carry blood from the heart to the lungs to pick up oxygen. PH occurs when the lung’s tiny arteries narrow or become blocked so pressure increases to keep blood flowing.

PH affects as many as 100,000 Americans, but thousands more are undiagnosed, according to the Pulmonary Hypertension Association. November is PH awareness month and officials hope to spread the word about this chronic disease.

Patricia George, M.D.
“PH is a debilitating disease and we offer an integrated approach to care that brings together specialists in cardiology, pulmonology, critical care and transplant to evaluate each patient,” said Patricia George, M.D., a pulmonologist at UPMC’s Comprehensive Pulmonary Hypertension Program.

The program is one of the largest of its kind in the United States and offers patients full access to state-of-the-art diagnostics, innovative treatments and opportunities to participate in the latest clinical research.

For Whigham, her treatment at UPMC has been life changing. Through a combination of 24-hour oxygen and medication, she is able to do many things she thought she never would again.

“Before when walking somewhere I’d have to look for a chair right away. My heart was just beating out of my chest,” she said. “It’s not easy, because I struggle every day, but I’m able to go to the grocery store now and that’s a big achievement for me.”

To raise awareness of PH, UPMC is a proud sponsor of Team PHenomenalHope, a four-person cycling team including Dr. George that will be participating in the 2014 Race Across America to raise money for PH research and educate the public about the disease. You can support the team at two upcoming events in Pittsburgh. Find out more here

"Our goal is not only to train and race, but to also use this as a platform to raise awareness about pulmonary hypertension, a disease for which there are treatments but no cure," Dr. George said. "As we train and race in honor of those living with this disease, we hope to inspire others along the way to perhaps ride a bike or walk or do whatever they can to support the Pulmonary Hypertension Association. We also hope to inspire people to join our efforts by donating money to fund research for a cure."