Heart failure at age 32 forced National Guard veteran to leave service, fight for life

February 27, 2018 GMT

Sara Parcell was 11 when she learned her father would need the first of two heart transplants. But even after spending much of her childhood in ICU rooms with him, she didn’t recognize her own risks for heart disease until she got the same diagnosis at age 32, forcing her to leave active duty in the National Guard.

Parcell was always an active person, so when she struggled to maintain the physical requirements of the military, she was scared she might lose her career. In 2014, Sara began experiencing troubling symptoms that went on for months, including vomiting, extreme fatigue and chest pain. Convinced it was her gallbladder, she went to see her family doctor, who, knowing her family history, did an electrocardiogram and sent her to a cardiologist. A week later, more testing revealed Parcell’s heart was working at less than 40 percent of its capacity and was in heart failure. She also had dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition that affects the heart’s ventricles and atria, the lower and upper chambers of the heart. It’s the same condition her dad had.

“Never in a million years did I think I would have heart disease,” Parcell said. “I was in such denial, I went outside and push-mowed my yard.”

Parcell initially went on medical leave before ending her 15 years of active duty the following year. She had worked as an aircraft maintenance scheduler for the base in Eleanor, W.Va., a role that put her in charge of 150 men and women and required constant travel. Parcell took a desk job with the Army Corp of Engineers for about a year and a half before having to stop working to conserve her strength.

Today, Parcell is controlling her condition with medication, although doctors have told her she will likely need an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) as her heart weakens, raising her risk for cardiac arrest.

“Ultimately, the only cure for me will be a heart transplant,” Parcell said.

Parcell focuses on keeping her heart as strong as possible, maintaining a heart-healthy diet unlike the one she grew up eating. “We were eating fried chicken the night my dad had his first cardiac arrest,” she said.

Parcell avoids fast food and is careful to limit sodium, which can create more fluid retention and strain her heart. She smoked for several years, but quit once she got her heart failure diagnosis.

Sharing her story has helped Parcell accept her diagnosis and feel empowered to make a difference. She encourages others to know their family history and recognize the symptoms of heart disease so they can minimize risks early.

“I want to decrease the number of people with heart disease, especially in Appalachia, by getting them to be more active and to take their health more seriously,” Parcell said.