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Don’s story: A reversal of fortune

Friday, December 9, 2016

Don Grossnickle, Ph.D., has spent a lifetime helping others – from spearheading a fundraising effort for a paralyzed high school athlete to his recent charity efforts in Africa where he focused on preventing deaths from malaria.

But earlier this year, the former Palatine High School biology teacher, Conant High School assistant principal and Addison Trail High School curriculum director needed help of his own.

After feeling shortness of breath and fatigue, Grossnickle, 68, came to NCH for a battery of tests that ultimately resulted in a diagnosis of acute dilated cardiomyopathy – better known as congestive heart failure.

“I learned my heart was enlarged and very weak,” Grossnickle says. “My left ventricle wasn’t pumping blood.”

After diagnosing Grossnickle and prescribing medication, NCH Cardiologist Gilbert Sita, M.D., recommended that he begin receiving care and support at NCH’s Atherton Heart Failure Clinic, an outpatient clinic where heart failure patients learn how to adjust their lifestyle after a diagnosis. Dr. Sita also recommended he enroll in the NCH cardio rehab program.

Grossnickle credits NCH’s coordinated care in the days following his diagnosis. Using the NCH MyChart app, Grossnickle scheduled appointments with his cardiologist, met with the heart failure clinic team and scheduled time with NCH’s cardiac rehab team. “Together, they worked a miracle for me,” he says.

At Atherton, Grossnickle learned how to adjust his diet by eliminating salt on his food. His nurse monitored his vital signs regularly. Grossnickle also attended exercise and peer support meetings. In NCH’s cardiopulmonary rehab program, he was encouraged to take a daily three-mile walk. Twice a week, he went through a supervised exercise program.

The diligent work was paying off, as Grossnickle lost 45 pounds during his four months of rehab and exercising. His care team recommended that Grossnickle consider an operation in which a defibrillator would be implanted in his chest to continuously monitor his heartbeat and detect and stop abnormal heart rhythms.

John Onufer, M.D., a cardiac electrophysiologist at NCH, was scheduled to perform the defibrillator implant surgery, but recommended a cardiac MRI before the procedure. Results of the MRI gave Grossnickle a gift he could not believe.

“In Don’s case, there was substantial improvement in the heart function and the implantable defibrillator was not required,” Dr. Onufer says.

The MRI showed that Grossnickle’s heart muscle and function had returned to near normal – he had an official diagnosis of heart failure reversal.

“I was told that heart failure reversal is very unusual and that I did not need surgery,” Grossnickle says. “My heart had resumed its normal shape and had started pumping at a normal rate.”

Dr. Onufer credits heart failure reversal to the use of medication and allowing the passage of time with rehab that might help most patients.

“Although diet and exercise are very important in the management of heart failure, they have not been shown to reverse the underlying cardiac damage,” Dr. Onufer says.

Grossnickle continues taking medication and still visits Atherton and the NCH’s cardiac rehab facilities and works with the team. He credits the coordinated care at NCH for his turnaround.

“I had a coordinated team that communicated every blood test, exercise activity, and my pulse rate and vitals were known by everybody on the team,” he says. “I did everything the doctors and professionals told me to give my heart the best possible environment to help me beat the odds.”

Physicians
  • John Onufer
  • Gilbert Sita

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