Jeffery Luke started noticing shortness of breath and a lack of stamina for about a year and a half but put off getting checked out by a doctor. He was hardly a couch potato. The 53-year-old Pfafftown, North Carolina resident works in construction, loves kayaking and chops his own wood to heat the house.

Luke was taking in a movie with his teenage son, John, when he realized he was in real trouble. “By the time I got to my seat, I couldn’t breathe. I sat there about five minutes and told my son that I needed to go to the hospital.” He made it to Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem where he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure caused by an arrhythmia, or an abnormal heart rhythm.

“At first I was like, what do you mean, heart failure?” said Luke. “Quality of life was what concerned me. I was more concerned with, am I going to be able to work? Am I going to be able to go kayaking?”

Congestive heart failure (CHF) often comes with the symptom of shortness of breath, because the heart isn't able pump enough blood, said Dr. Olivia Gilbert, Luke’s heart failure cardiologist at Novant Health Forsyth Heart and Wellness in Winston-Salem. Heart failure cases vary a lot, she said, but some of them are reversible. Gilbert said some other reversible forms include those caused by pregnancy and by coronary artery disease.

Gilbert said signs of heart failure tend to be shortness of breath when moving, legs swelling, having trouble lying flat at night, lightheadedness and extra heartbeats. Rhythm disturbances, the cause in Luke’s case, can be caused by many factors, including sleep apnea, obesity, alcohol abuse, thyroid disease and many others.

There was a time when a diagnosis of congestive heart failure meant that doctors were left only with trying to ease the pain of the patient’s symptoms, but that’s something that’s changed in certain cases in recent years. Fortunately for Luke, his particular form, tachycardia-induced cardiomyopathy, is reversible.

 “There’s a lot of hope for heart failure these days,” Gilbert said. “(Luke’s) heart failure came from an arrhythmia and once you treated the arrhythmia the heart failure went away. I think he’s also a good example that not all heart failure patients are people who are older with multiple chronic diseases. It’s very rewarding to see these patients turn things around.”

Putting things in reverse

Those turnarounds can come very quickly. In all, Luke was in the hospital for about a week. He got a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy harmful tissue, which helped the heart rhythm. Once his heart rhythm was under better control, it was able to heal. “By the third or fourth day, I felt great,” Luke said. “I felt the best I’d felt in I don’t know how long. I’m begging them, can I go back to work? I felt instantly fine.”

Luke just completed his six month checkup and things are looking good, Gilbert said. And other than some preventive medications, Luke’s back to a normal lifestyle.

Luke missed just two weeks of work. He laughed at how his partner in his construction business, Luke Construction, is 68 and liked to tease him when he returned, saying, “Let me get that for you.”

The present state of heart failure

Heart failure varies a lot. While some forms are reversible, there are some more difficult cases, Gilbert said, where it’s difficult to tell what the cause is. Physicians are left with having to treat it with medication in the hope the condition will improve. And she said some forms, such as those caused by ischemic heart disease, can take much longer to respond to therapies.

More than 5 million people in the U.S. have heart failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The number of heart failure diagnoses has also been growing quickly, which Gilbert said is largely due to patients surviving other health problems that they would have been much less likely to survive in the past, such as heart attacks, HIV, cancer and others.

Back to work … unless the fish are biting

Now Luke is back to push-mowing his acre and a half and keeping a large garden just like before. He also does some woodworking when he’s home from his construction job and cuts firewood.

He does have a major addiction: fishing.

“In the spring, I don’t care who I’m working for and what I’m doing, if they’re biting, I’m out there,” Luke said.

He puts in his kayak on the Yadkin River and paddles upstream about 2 miles, to a dam where he likes to try his luck. Or sometimes he tries Salem Lake on the east side of Winston-Salem. Considering his scare, Luke said it’s sure nice to get back to his life and to get back out on the water again.

For details about Novant Health heart and vascular care and services, click here.