Lung disease can be deadly if left untreated, doctors say

HOUSTON – When Theresia Spearman was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, she said doctors never guessed she would still be alive today.

“I would have only lived six months, it was just that severe,” she said. It was a devastating diagnosis for a mother of three, but that was more than 20 years ago.

“Now we're at the point where I get up and I take pills, and I never thought I’d see the day,” Spearman said, explaining how her long treatment history has gotten much simpler with time.

Although the treatments have come a long way, the speed of diagnosis is still slow.

“They go to doctors, maybe two or three of them, until finally somebody believes them and does the diagnostic workup,” said Dr. Zeenat Safdar, director of Houston Methodist Hospital's Pulmonary Hypertension Center. “There’s still a delay of two years from onset of illness to the diagnosis.”

That delay mostly happens, Safdar said, because the illness disguises itself behind symptoms similar to asthma, heart problems or perhaps doctors assume the patient is not physically fit. Struggling to breathe, fatigue and chest pains in this case are signs that tiny arteries in the lungs are narrowing. As the pressure builds, your heart works harder, eventually causing it to fail unless the patient gets treatment.

“There are oral therapies, there are inhaled therapies, there is subcutaneous infusion therapy. Then there is the last resort, which is intravenous therapy that patients are put on. Of course, if they advance to a point where these medications are not working, lung transplantation is the end option,” Safdar said.

If it's never treated, she said patients can die within three years.

“This is an under recognized and under treated disease, I think there are more patients out there and we have to get the word out,” Safdar said.

Spearman successfully manages the illness with oxygen and medication.

Although, this time of year, patients with pulmonary hypertension that are traveling on airplanes, experiencing holiday stress and eating rich foods, may feel more symptoms since these things can put more pressure on your lungs.

Spearman said even though she’s a skilled multi-tasker, she has to remember to slow down and breathe.

Houston Methodist Hospital is the only hospital in Houston accredited as a pulmonary hypertension care center.

Safdar said they conduct clinical studies on this illness and encourages patients to enroll in them.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pulmonary hypertension is more common among women and non-Hispanic blacks. Genetics also play a role in pulmonary hypertension, and the incidence of it increases with age.