Jeffrey Bernharrdt, Heart Institute Patient

When Jeffrey Bernharrdt came down with a bad cough in the fall of 2014, he wasn't concerned at first. After all, he was only 43 and had enjoyed good health all his life. Jeffrey went to the doctor and got prescription strength cough medicine. But the "deep and heavy" cough persisted.

Jeffrey was also feeling fatigued, but he could easily attribute that to working two jobs — one with the King County Department of Transportation and another with a high school where he is the girls varsity basketball coach. What was puzzling was the weight gain. "I was about 15 pounds heavier than I had ever been," says Jeffrey, whose eating habits had not changed.

“There was a closer hospital to us, but I knew I wanted to be seen at Virginia Mason.”

One morning, when Jeffrey walked out to get the paper, he felt like he was going to collapse. At his doctor's office, he was found to have an irregular heartbeat. Jeffrey was referred to heart and lung specialists for further testing and treatment.

But before that could happen, Jeffrey became very ill and spent the 2015 Super Bowl Sunday throwing up. His fiancee convinced him he needed to go to the emergency room (ER) and they drove to Virginia Mason. "There was a closer hospital to us, but I knew I wanted to be seen at Virginia Mason," says Jeffrey. "I trust Virginia Mason."

Tests performed in the ER were inconclusive, but Jeffrey was admitted and continued to get worse. It wasn't long before Jeffrey was in cardiogenic shock, a condition caused by the heart's failure to supply enough blood to the organs. Blood pressure falls and the organs may begin to fail. Death can occur if the condition is not recognized and treated immediately.

Jeffrey passed out and says he woke up while being transported to surgery where a balloon was used to take over pumping for his heart. After the emergency operation, Jeffrey was in the Intensive Care Unit for nine days. He had checked into the hospital weighing 300 pounds and by the time he was released, he was down to 240. The weight gain was probably due to fluids that built up when his heart wasn't functioning properly.

After his initial hospital stay, Jeffrey underwent two cardioversions to shock his heart back into a regular rhythm. But after a short time he was again experiencing an irregular heartbeat. In June 2015, Jeffrey underwent a cardiac ablation in which a catheter is inserted into the groin and sent to the heart to eliminate the confused electrical signals causing the irregular heartbeat. 

The ablation was a success and Jeffrey has maintained a good heart rate and normal blood pressure ever since. He has been able to stop taking three of the medications he was on and is feeling his old energy return. "I trust my doctors at Virginia Mason completely," says Jeffrey. "I want to tell other people not to be afraid to go to the doctor when you think something is wrong. I've learned to listen to what my body is telling me."