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February 25, 2013

McNutt stays positive in fight against pulmonary hypertension

VALDOSTA — Christa McNutt couldn’t be happier about turning 40. Her birthday was in January, and she feels fantastic about it.

“Forty is the new 30 or something, right?” she said. “I have no qualms about growing older or getting gray hair or wrinkles. I love every minute of it!”

This might seem strange to the average aging adult clinging to her youth, but McNutt counts another year past her like another hurdled jumped. With pulmonary hypertension, everyday breathing is precious.

In patients with PH, the blood pressure in the tissues of the lungs are extremely high, causing shortness of breath, severe chest pains, dizziness and fainting, swelling of the legs and abdomen, and sometimes blue fingertips or lips.

“Normal lung pressure is between 14 and 25 mmHg,” McNutt said. “At diagnosis in May of 2010, the pressure in my lungs was 100 mmHg. Now it’s 49.”

Circulation problems associated with the disease can lead to heart failure, and currently, there is no cure.

McNutt takes a diuretic twice a day for swelling, and for the constricted blood vessels of the lungs that cause the symptoms, she takes a drug called Adcirca, more commonly known as Cialis, taken by men for erectile dysfunction.

The constriction in the lungs in PH patients is caused by an excess of the normal human protein called endothelin that naturally constricts blood vessels. McNutt takes a third drug called Letairis to block it. She sleeps and goes out of the house during the day (only on good days) with a tank of oxygen.

“You sort of go through a grieving process after being diagnosed,” McNutt said. “You have to say goodbye to your old life and the way you used to do things in order to figure out new ways of doing things, so you can start your new life. I do have bad days. I call them PHunk days. But I don’t allow myself to wallow for a long time because there are so many things I want to see and do.”

McNutt was a hairstylist for 18 years, and she had to retire because of her disease. She misses her old life and her job, but she has developed other hobbies to occupy her time.

“I enjoy photography on my feel-good days, and I’ve surprised myself by taking up cooking,” McNutt said. “Normally I’m the one that would rather clean.”

McNutt had to say goodbye to Savannah, where she lived for 11 years, and move back to Valdosta because of her health. She now lives with her father and his wife, who help her get through her bad days and stay positive.

“It had been an adjustment for all of us, but I’m thankful I’m able to be here for now,” McNutt said. “I hope to get my own place again soon. My sister and my dad both worry a good bit, and my PHunk days probably put a bit of strain on things, but I think all in all, we’re handling it well.”

McNutt had never heard of PH until she had gone to the doctor for a regular check-up and was told her oxygen was low. Her physician seemed unconcerned, she said, but one of her friends in nursing school advised her to get a second opinion, and took McNutt to the ER.

Doctors in the ER told her the symptoms she had been having were either due to PH or heart failure.

“I felt horrible,” McNutt said. “My lungs felt like they were on fire when I’d walk long distances. Today I feel pretty good. I just have to think about everything I’m going to be doing before I do it because of medications and the PH symptoms.”

McNutt sometimes has several good days in a row, but she will pay for them with several bad days, she said. Spontaneity is difficult with her condition.

To learn more about her disease and how to manage it, McNutt joined an online support group and did some research at PHAssociation.org . The information and the advice of her web friends during the last four years have given her hope, a reason to stay positive, and some lasting connections.

“I also have a friend — or a ‘PHriend’ as we say in the PH community — that I met through ex-coworkers here in town,” McNutt said. “She also has PH. We meet for lunch once a month to vent and mostly have a great time.”

In spite of her tremendous struggle, McNutt will not give up. She’s “too stubborn for that,” she said. One of her friends passed away last year from breast cancer, and McNutt remembers the words she once told her.

“She said, ‘Life isn’t fair, but it’s still wonderful,’” McNutt said. “I think that no matter what kind of cards life deals you, you’ve got to find at least one good thing about your day every single day.”

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