Renee G Living with Heart Failure Is Easier with Help from Healthy Lives

“They are very nurturing and make you feel so comfortable. I can’t tell you what a godsend they have been.”

With education and support from the Healthy Lives program at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, Renee Guest's heart condition has become much more manageable.

In 2011, Renee Guest, 58, had a major heart attack that left her with congestive heart failure, a condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood and oxygen to the body’s organs. For years, she was in and out of the hospital as she wrestled with problems like chest pain, irregular heartbeat and difficulty breathing. It was a pattern often seen in people with heart failure. As the weakened heart’s output decreases, fluid can back up and accumulate in a variety of organs, which not only can cause shortness of breath but trigger congestion and swelling in the ankles, legs, feet or stomach.

“When I fill with fluid, it goes to my lungs, chest and stomach area,” says Renee, who also battles diabetes and thyroid problems. “I get shortness of breath and palpitations, and that’s when I know I’m in trouble.”

But after a visit to the emergency room in 2019, Renee’s doctor urged her to enroll in the Healthy Lives Hamilton program, which offers heart failure patients easy access to medical care along with education and support. The goal: to prevent a health crisis and avoid hospitalization.

Through the program, Renee learned about lifestyle measures that help control her condition, the optimal way to take her medications and how to recognize her symptoms before they get out of hand. Now she checks in at the first sign of trouble, which allows the Healthy Lives Hamilton team to adjust her treatments and get her back on track.

“They’ve made my heart failure much more manageable,” Renee says. “It’s just the best program.”

Life-Altering Diagnosis

“Once people are diagnosed with heart failure, they’ll always need to be mindful of it because it affects so many aspects of their lives,” says Ann Mancuso, MSN, RN, CHFN, Program Coordinator for Healthy Lives Hamilton. People who never glanced at nutrition labels on packaged foods, for example, need to examine product contents and understand better how eating affects their health. Among the ingredients they need to focus on and control is sodium, which promotes fluid retention.

“Managing heart failure requires having the capacity to listen to your body,” Mancuso says. “You need to assess yourself every day for signs and symptoms of worsening heart failure, remember to take your medications and not let yourself run out. And it requires knowing when to call for help.” The program helps people meet each of these goals, she says, encouraging them to take control of their health.

People often learn about Healthy Lives Hamilton when being discharged from the hospital or the ER, Mancuso says. When meeting with a new patient, the program’s team works to understand the person’s specific challenges. “Every patient who comes to us is unique,” Mancuso says. “What works for one does not necessarily work for another.”

Tackling Barriers

One key step is to identify barriers that keep patients from taking the best care of themselves. “We not only help empower them but help them navigate the health system,” says Mancuso.

For example, some people with heart failure find it challenging to pay for vital prescriptions. “Quite a few patients don’t pick up new medications after their hospital discharge because they can’t afford them,” Mancuso says. “We help them identify programs— whether through the community, pharmaceutical companies or the hospital—that they may benefit from.”

When patients like Renee experience worrisome symptoms, they often turn first to Healthy Lives Hamilton. “I can call and say, ‘Look, I’m having issues,’ and they’ll get me in for a checkup,” Renee says. “Sometimes it requires drawing blood and looking at the labs. Other times, they talk to me and get a sense of what’s going on.” If necessary, the program will send patients to the ER.

Crucially, the Healthy Lives Hamilton team keeps patients’ other health care providers informed. Nurses are in constant touch with Renee’s primary care doctor and her Philadelphia-based cardiologist about her ongoing treatment. “Collaborative care gives patients a safety net and peace of mind that their needs are being met,” says Mancuso.

Compassionate Care

Providing social support is a key ingredient in the program’s success. In recent months, Renee has experienced some lows in her health, due in part to the death of her husband in February. “I’ve been seeing them quite often lately,” she says.

Care often goes beyond medical treatment. “Renee has had an incredible amount of stress as of late in her life,” says Mancuso. “We’re trying to be a support for her, even if it’s just to reassure her that we’re going to help her with whatever she needs and she’s going to be fine.”

“They are very nurturing and make you feel so comfortable,” says Renee. “I can’t tell you what a godsend they have been.”

Whoever your heart beats for, our hearts beat for you. To connect with a top cardiovascular specialist at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, call 888-724-7123 or request an appointment.