An Unexpected Journey

Colleen seated and smilingBy the time we reach our 60s, many of us are nearing or dreaming of retirement.

But not Colleen Kuxhaus. In 2017, she was a 65-year-old clinical assistant professor and program coordinator of post-graduate periodontics and implantology at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry. And she was in her element.

“After decades in private practice, I was really enjoying teaching,” Colleen says. “But my heart seemed to have a different plan.”

She started experiencing chest pain (angina), which got progressively worse. She also felt like she had no stamina.

“It was affecting my work, and I was afraid to be active,” Colleen says. “When I walked, both legs would feel like they were falling asleep on me. I had to force myself to walk through it. I didn’t want to walk long distances until I knew what was happening to my heart.”

She was no stranger to heart problems, which had devastated her family. “I lost my dad young, then my sister,” Colleen says. “She had a heart transplant and died seven days later. Her son also died at 32.”

Colleen had been seen by Henry Ford specialists over the years and was taking medications to manage her Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. But something felt off, so she scheduled a cardiac stress test at Henry Ford Medical Center – Sterling Heights.

“I failed it miserably,” she says.

Things move quickly

Her heart blockage was so severe that the team at Sterling Heights immediately rushed her by ambulance to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

“40 minutes later, I was on the table getting my first heart cath,” she says.

It was here that she met Khaldoon Alaswad, M.D., director of the Henry Ford Hospital Catheterization Laboratory.

“Dr. Alaswad came in and reassured me I was going to be OK,” she says. “I understood the procedure pretty well because of my profession, but he took the time to really explain it.”

Colleen would be undergoing a percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) procedure, which involves inserting a catheter (flexible tube) through a small incision in the upper thigh or wrist. This catheter is then threaded through the body's arterial highway to the heart, where tiny wires are used to treat coronary arteries narrowed by blockage, restoring blood flow.

Given her own work in the dental field, and even in the midst of her emergency situation, Colleen was interested in what was happening.

“They lightly sedated me for the procedure but kept the screen on so that I could turn my head and watch, which I wanted to,” she says.

Relief … and more treatment

“I noticed an immediate difference after the procedure,” Colleen says. “I couldn’t believe how much better I felt, not only physically, but deeper. I had been feeling all clogged up, and under a lot of stress, then when the blood started flowing, it was like an emotional release.”

As part of her overall treatment plan, Dr. Alaswad ordered additional tests, including genetic testing. He consulted with Cori Russel, M.D., who is one of Henry Ford Health's cardiologists focusing on very advanced and complex cardiovascular risk factor detection and management.

Colleen was diagnosed with lipoprotein(a), also known as Lp(a) or “LP little a,” a condition that can cause cholesterol issues. With this new information, her Henry Ford Health team was able to focus on Lp(a) in her treatment plan.

But in July 2021, she started having chest pain again.

“Once you know what it feels like to feel good, you can tell when you’re starting to have issues, so I knew something was wrong,” she says.

Colleen underwent another cardiac stress test, which was negative, and was put on a new medication to help control her symptoms. But by February 2022, her chest pain was back, and she was also experiencing shortness of breath.

This ultimately led to more cath procedures over several months, including the implantation of stents (small, metal mesh tubes that are placed within a coronary artery to help keep it open and blood flowing).

During a procedure in May 2022, her cath procedure showed that all stents were working, but Colleen was still experiencing symptoms. She was placed on a nitrate medication to help keep the blood flowing, but a month later, she experienced swelling in her legs.

“I woke up one morning, and I had pork sausage links for toes,” Colleen says. “I sent a text to Dr. Alaswad’s team, and they got me in ASAP.”

Her team prescribed a diuretic to help with the swelling, but also dug deeper, asking questions about Colleen’s diet.

“It turns out that black licorice can be a problem with heart disease, and I ate a lot of it,” she says. “So I gave up the Good and Plentys.”

Recently, Colleen had her latest cath procedure to replace some of her stents.

“It’s been quite a journey, but I feel like I’m in good hands,” Colleen says. “Any time I have a question or issue, I call or send a message to the team, and they take really good care of me, and make sure I get my appointments.”

Looking forward

Although she hadn’t planned on retiring this early, Colleen, now 70, is looking forward to what’s next.

“I can be active, go out with friends, even garden a bit,” she says. “My health no longer stops me from wanting to do anything. I just went to Florida, and I was in the pool all day.”

Colleen’s husband is also relieved.

“We found each other later in life, and we’ve worked very different careers,” she says. “He was an attorney, so in the beginning of my treatment, he didn’t really know what was going on, and it freaked him out a bit. After seeing how well I’ve been treated by my team, and learning about my condition, he’s calmer about it now.”

Colleen also feels a personal connection to Dr. Alaswad.

“I was the coordinator of the residency program at University of Detroit Mercy, and Dr. Alaswad leads the Complex and High-risk Coronary Intervention (CHIP) fellowship program at Henry Ford,” Colleen says. “The way they speak about him, it made me feel good about him taking care of me. He’s training these future specialists and showing them the importance of compassion, leading by example. I am so blessed to have so many amazing experiences with this cardiac team. Without Henry Ford, I wouldn’t have tomorrow.”

After everything she’s been through, Colleen is grateful for the care she’s received from Henry Ford Health and is looking forward to what comes next.

“I didn’t let my medical history predict my future. I am Henry.”
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