Fort Worth clinic one of few that treats pulmonary hypertension

Linda McDonald was always healthy, until one day when she couldn't walk 500 yards without gasping for air.

"I never took a sick day and hardly ever took an aspirin," said McDonald, 54, of Blue Mound. "Then all of the sudden I would have to stop and catch my breath for a good 10 minutes."

She attributed her problem to being overweight. Her physician thought she had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

But when her lips turned blue and she could hardly breathe, she saw a cardiologist. He told McDonald that she had pulmonary hypertension, a rare condition that causes high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. Over time it can lead to an enlarged heart that loses its ability to pump.

McDonald said she was lucky that her condition was quickly diagnosed.

Typically, it takes 21/2 years for a correct diagnosis, said Dr. Stuart Lander, co-medical director of the Pulmonary Hypertension Clinic at Baylor All Saints Medical Center. It is the only specialized clinic for the disorder in Tarrant County and one of three in North Texas. Baylor University Medical Center and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, both in Dallas, have similar clinics.

As many as 100,000 people in the United States have the disease, but thousands never know it, according to the Pulmonary Hypertension Association. Three in 4 patients are women, typically age 30 to 50.

Often women go undiagnosed because the symptoms are so vague.

Erika Applin, 39, blamed asthma for her breathing problems. But tests revealed that she had pulmonary hypertension, which has no cure. Although some people manage the disease for years, about half have associated health problems such as lupus and die within three to five years.

There was no accepted treatment until the early 1990s, when several drugs became available. As a result, patients' quality of life improves and they are living longer, Lander said.

Applin of Fort Worth said the drugs have allowed her to return to the volunteer work she enjoyed.

"Now I can walk around like there's nothing wrong with me," she said.

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664