Friday, 17 April 2015

PHighter Friday: Susie Alvarez

Susie Alvarez
23 year Pulmonary Hypertension long term survivor
Diagnosed idiopathic and familial, Stage 3
Support group co leader, PH support group of Greater L.A.
Board of Directors, Help Mates 4 Hope, Los Angeles
State of California employee, 31 years

I was born and raised in Pomona, California. I am the oldest of three sisters and the aunt to two nephews. As a child, I was also a champion baton twirler, winning numerous awards.  I graduated college and moved to Los Angeles in 1983 and started a 30 year career with the State of California located in Culver City.  My life was full with family events, work projects, vacations, and much fun and promise.  

While attending additional college and working full time, I began to notice I was short of breath during my busy day.  I continued to keep up with my daily work routine but had to drop my college track and dance classes as I could just not keep up with the physical activity the classes required.  I continued to experience shortness of breath, fatigue, and generally feel out of shape.   I made a mental note to visit my Doctor after the upcoming Fourth of July holiday which I was looking forward to away from work.

On June 30, 1992, my life was forever changed. I cashed my paycheck after work and began the drive home.  Without warning, I had a crushing pain in my chest as though someone was sitting on it.  I pulled over on a very busy city street during heavy afternoon traffic and parked right under the “no parking anytime” sign which caught the attention of a parking officer. She approached my car and I suddenly grabbed her by the chest and gasped “I can’t breathe!”   I saw the urgent look on her face as she called paramedics, who arrived and took me to Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles.   During the week I was there, I had several tests done every day to find out why I was so sick.  I remember coming in and out of consciousness and not knowing what day or time it was.

On the morning of Sat July 4th 1992, the pulmonologist visited my room. He quickly sat down and said
“We found out what’s wrong with you. You have Pulmonary Hypertension which is a fatal lung condition for which there is no cure.
Go home, get your affairs in order, and the best we can tell you is that you have 5 years to live. We will send you home with a prescription to help you breathe but your illness will progressively get worse. Eventually you will need a lung transplant.” 
Then he left the room. 

My mind went into a fog, I felt so confused and very scared. I was hyperventilating through my tears.  My family was located miles away and I did not have the strength to pick up the phone and call them.  I was alone in a cold hospital room and had just received the most devastating news someone could ever hear.    I remember grabbing the nurse by the arm, crying all night, and the only question in my head was

********************WHAT IS PULMONARY HYPERTENSION AND HOW DID I GET IT??**********************

At the time of my diagnosis, the internet and cell phones were not widely available to search for resources. I had no written information or source of support to find out more information about this medical disease that was to end my life.  For 3 years, I did not know anyone who had PH or who knew what PH was. I continued to work but always the question stayed in my mind. My Doctor’s words were correct.  My symptoms of PH progressively worsened, I was short of breath, fatigued, dizzy most of the day and was told I was being referred to a PH Dr. Center for further treatment.

My life was forever changed again when I visited the PH center in Torrance, Ca.   I met a cardiologist who knew what PH was and how to treat it.   He explained I immediately needed an IV line placed in my chest with medicine attached to a pump that would open up the arteries in my lungs to help me breathe.  I would have to wear this pump and medication 24 hours a day which also required care of the IV site and mixing medication that would be attached to the pump.
In March 1996, I was placed on Flolan (epoprostenol), the only FDA approved therapy available to patients at that time, and remained on this therapy for 11 1/2 years. With continued improvement, I participated in several clinical trials for oral therapies to treat PH while I remained on the IV line therapy. I began attending support groups, PHA’s International Conference, and local events in my area for people who lived with PH where I learned more about this medical condition.

I was also referred to UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles, evaluated and placed on the transplant list for a double lung transplant. I remained on the transplant list for 13 months.  During that time I moved to the top of the list and one evening I was called in for a transplant. The surgeon informed me the donated lungs were not viable and I was sent home. Shortly thereafter, I was removed from the transplant list by my PH doctor who informed me the IV medicine was improving my quality of life.  

Finally, on Oct. 31st 2007, I was taken off the epoprostenol pump therapy and walked out of the hospital – PUMP FREE!
Before this date, I transitioned to oral therapies Letaris (abrisentan), Adcirca (tadalafil)  and Coumadin and it felt so good to be free of the pump.   

During my journey and with the improvement in my quality of life, I continued to work full time and began traveling both in and out of the U.S. for work and vacations.   In 2011, I volunteered to serve as the co-leader for the PH Support Group of Greater Los Angeles
In June 2013 our group suffered the tragic loss of our co-leader and PH patient, Angel Alcala.   With the addition of a new and energetic co-leader, Joannie Yuille, the Greater L.A. PH support group began an annual fundraising event, A Message of Hope”, in Angel’s honor.
We both enjoy engaging the PH community and provide a comfortable place for hope and support. We hold six meeting a year, one special event each May, and our first annual PHA Chapter sponsored o2 Breathe Walk in the fall.   Our support group has enjoyed speakers from Pulmonary Rehabilitation, the Red Cross, nutritionists, creative writing, networking for caregivers, occupational therapists, musicians, and much more.

I also serve on the Board of Directors for Help Mates for Hope, a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles and committed to filling in the gaps in foster children’s lives.  Our group has been awarded grants from the Ronald McDonald house charities, local businesses, the Los Angeles Police Department, The California Highway Patrol, and many others’ who sponsor our events to provide foster children education, clothing, and a place to learn and grow. Visit us at or on our Facebook page.  
I started attending Zumba dance classes in 2012 after consulting with my doctor for a safe and fun form of exercise.  I feel a
“shot of happy” when I feel the music and dance.  I also enjoy spending time with my canine kid, Mimi, a Pomeranian-Chihuahua
who takes walks with me several times a week for exercise.

In 2012, I attended PHA’s Congressional luncheon at the Capitol in Washington D.C. to ask my senators; to co-sponsor the Pulmonary Hypertension Research and Diagnosis Act (H.R. 2073).  We also taught them the importance of early diagnosis with the campaign, Sometimes It’s PH.  

After being married and divorced in the 1980’s, I have lived alone the entire time I have been diagnosed and felt this was my destiny to live alone with this rare disease.     In 2012 I volunteered to assist at the registration desk at the PHA International Conference.  I met another co-leader, Perry Mamigonian, from Fresno CA. We chatted about living with PH and the invaluable resources the PH Association and Conference provides to patients today.   Perry was also a part of the group of patients who attended the 2012 Congressional Luncheon.     In 2011, Perry initiated a campaign in Ca. among support group leaders in his state for a state sponsored proclamation recognizing November as PH Awareness month which he received in 2011.   We attended several PH events
including the 1st annual PHA Chapter o2 Breathe Gala in San Francisco, Ca.  As PHriends, we discovered we had many ideals and life goals in common and began dating in 2013.  This has been the most significant event of my PH journey to find a partner who loves me!
I’m often asked how? and why I do so much for PHA?  My answer is that I was once a newly diagnosed patient, living alone, and so afraid of dying without knowing what PH is.  I’ve survived beyond the five year timeline I was give over 20 years ago.  My journey was not an easy one by any means.  As a long term survivor, every day is a blessing for me.  The loss of close PHriends to this disease
and the hope I bring to newly diagnosed patients who I meet keep me motivated to work towards awareness, support, and hope for a cure. 
Please reach out to me at:
Ph:  310-938-7930
Pinterest:  PH-Greater L.A. Support Group  
Twitter: @batterygrl
Facebook: Greater L.A. PH Support Group


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  2. You are a true inspiration. Everytime I read your story it reminds me of why I fell in love with you. Thank you, Susie, for everything that you are and do!