Heart Failure Program

  • The Heart Failure Program at Memorial University Medical Center provides education for heart failure patients and their families, community education, and intense patient follow up to help people with heart failure live well and stay well. To learn more about our program, call 912-350-BEAT (2328). View our heart failure patient outcomes.

    What is Heart Failure?
    Heart failure occurs when the heart does not pump properly. It can’t send enough oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood through the body, meaning other organs cannot function properly either. As a result, you may experience fatigue and shortness of breath. Everyday activities such as walking, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries become very difficult.

    Heart failure is a serious condition and there is no cure. But many people with heart failure lead full, enjoyable lives by managing their condition with medication and lifestyle changes.

    Heart failure can impact one or both sides of the heart.

    Left-Sided Heart Failure
    The heart pumps oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the left atrium, then to the left ventricle, then out to the rest of the body. The left ventricle is larger than the other chambers in the heart and supplies most of the heart's pumping power. In left-sided or left ventricular (LV) heart failure, the left side of the heart must work even harder than usual to pump the same amount of blood.

    There are two types of left-sided heart failure:

    • Systolic failure: The left ventricle loses its ability to contract normally. The heart can't pump with enough force to push blood into circulation.
    • Diastolic failure or diastolic dysfunction: The left ventricle loses its ability to relax normally because the muscle has become stiff. The heart can't fill with blood during the resting period between each beat.

    Right-Sided Heart Failure
    Blood that has already circulated through the body returns to the heart through the right atrium and is pumped into the right ventricle. The right ventricle then pumps the blood back to the lungs to be replenished with oxygen.

    Right-sided or right ventricular (RV) heart failure usually occurs as a result of left-sided failure. When the left ventricle fails, fluid builds up in the lungs and ultimately damages the heart's right side. When the right side loses its pumping power, blood backs up in the body's veins and causes swelling and congestion. This is also known as “congestive heart failure.”

    Congestive Heart Failure
    When blood flow out of the heart slows down, blood returning to the heart backs up, causing congestion throughout the body. This often results in swelling in the legs and ankles. If fluid collects in the lungs, it causes shortness of breath, particularly when a person is lying down. This can lead to respiratory distress. Heart failure also affects the kidneys' ability to dispose of sodium and water. The retained water further increases swelling throughout the body. Congestive heart failure requires timely medical attention.

    Managing Heart Failure
    Heart failure cannot be cured, but it can be managed with lifestyle changes and medication. Successful treatment depends upon your willingness to get involved and take control of your health. Caregivers and loved ones also play an important role in helping you manage heart failure.

    The following lifestyle changes can help alleviate heart failure symptoms, slow disease progression, and improve your overall health.

    • Quit smoking: Each puff of nicotine temporarily increases your heart rate and blood pressure. This means the heart is working even harder, but still circulating less oxygen-rich blood through the body. Smoking also leads to clumping or stickiness in the blood vessels feeding the heart. People who quit smoking are more likely to have their heart failure symptoms improve.
    • Maintain a healthy weight: Sudden weight gain or loss can be a sign that heart failure is progressing. Weigh yourself at the same time each morning, preferably before breakfast and after urinating. Weigh yourself wearing the same type of clothes, without shoes, on the same scale, and in the same spot each day. Notify your healthcare team if you gain three or more pounds in one day, five or more pounds in one week, or whatever amount you are told to report. Talk to your doctor about safe ways to achieve a healthy weight.
    • Track your daily fluid intake: When your body retains fluid because of heart failure, your healthcare team may recommend limiting how much liquid you drink. Many people are prescribed diuretics (water pills) to help them get rid of extra water and sodium and reduce their heart’s workload. Talk with your healthcare provider about how much liquid to drink every day.
    • Avoid alcohol: If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. This means no more than one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
    • Avoid or limit caffeine: Consume only a moderate amount of caffeine per day, no more than a cup or two of coffee.
    • Eat a heart-healthy diet: Eat foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. The average American gets 3,436 milligrams of sodium (salt) per day. That’s more than double the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of 1,500 milligrams per day. Manufacturers use salt to preserve foods and modify flavor, and it’s included in additives that affect the texture or color of foods. Sodium is an essential nutrient, but very little is needed in the diet.
    • Be physically active: Begin an exercise program with your healthcare provider’s permission. Schedule physical activity at the same time every day so it becomes a regular part of your lifestyle. A structured rehabilitation program might be a good place to start.
    • Monitor your blood pressure: Research has shown that monitoring blood pressure at home in addition to regular monitoring in a healthcare provider’s office can better control high blood pressure. Chart your blood pressure so you can see what is happening over time.

    Heart Failure Medications
    Heart failure patients need multiple medications to treat different symptoms or contributing factors. Make sure you follow your healthcare team’s instructions about when and how to take them. It's important to discuss all of the drugs you take with your doctor and understand their desired effects and possible side effects. Remember that your healthcare provider and pharmacist are your best sources of information. Don't hesitate to ask them questions about your medicines.

    Surgery
    Surgery may be needed if your heart failure is caused by a heart defect or a blocked artery. Your doctor may recommend:

    • Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI): This procedure re-opens blocked vessels. A small tube with a tiny deflated balloon on one end is inserted through an incision in the groin area and pushed through to the diseased artery. Then the balloon is inflated to push open the artery. The balloon is removed and a stent may be inserted to keep the blood vessel open. This procedure is usually performed in the cardiac catheterization lab and does not require a hospital stay. 
    • Coronary artery bypass: This procedure reroutes the blood supply around a blocked section of the artery. Surgeons remove healthy blood vessels from another part of the body, such as a leg or the chest wall. They surgically attach the vessels to the diseased artery so that blood can flow around the blocked section.

    Implantable Devices
    Today, doctors are using the following implantable devices to help manage heart failure:

    • Pacemaker: This small device is implanted under the skin near the collarbone. It sends electrical signals to start or regulate a slow heartbeat.
    • Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD): This device is permanently placed in the body to monitor your heart rhythm. If your heart beats too fast or too slow, the device sends out electrical signals that bring the rhythm back to normal.

    Warning Signs
    When you have heart failure, it’s very important to keep track of symptoms and report any changes to your healthcare team. Pay attention to your body. If you notice something new or different, notify your healthcare professional immediately. Watch for:

    • Sudden weight gain — three or more pounds in one day, five or more pounds in one week, or whatever amount you are told to report.
    • Shortness of breath while at rest, not related to exercise or exertion.
    • Increased swelling of the legs or ankles.
    • Swelling or pain in the abdomen.
    • Trouble sleeping, including waking up short of breath or needing pillows to prop you up because you can’t sleep lying flat.
    • Frequent dry, hacking cough at night.
    • Loss of appetite.
    • Increased fatigue or feeling tired all the time.
    • Increased heart rate or heart palpitations.

    Contact Us
    The Heart Failure Program at Memorial University Medical Center
    4700 Waters Avenue
    Savannah, GA 31404
    912-350-4327