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Telehealth program helps patient reclaim life

Date released: 07/15/04

SAN MARCOS— Sometimes technology saves lives, and other times it helps recover lives. As far as Dale resident Gloria Riddle is concerned, the Department of Physical Therapy's Telehealth Program at Texas State University-San Marcos did both for her.

Riddle had a history of multiple disorders, including stroke, heart arrhythmia and hypertension. Because of her isolation from medical facilities, occurrences of heart irregularities were particularly frightening, explained Donald Shaw, Ph.D., P.T., director of the Texas State Telehealth Program, and satisfactory diagnosis and treatment was difficult.

"She had a history of stroke and atrial fibrillation. While that's not immediately life-threatening, in some cases this arrhythmia can lead to stroke, and it is a leading cause of re-stroke," Shaw said. "When skipped heartbeats come, it's psychologically devastating. Because of this, she stopped working 13 years ago. She withdrew from life."

After seeing a television report on the new Texas State program, Riddle contacted Shaw's office and within a few months she was enrolled as one of the first participants in the only university-based Transtelephonic Exercise Monitoring (TEM) program in the nation. With sensors relaying her heart rate and blood pressure over a common phone line, Dr. Shaw was able to put her through a cardiovascular rehabilitation exercise regime and track her body's response.

"I was so excited, because I might be able to finally find out what?s wrong with my heart," Riddle said. "Dr. Shaw kept detecting something wrong with my blood pressure as I was exercising. Every so often my heart would beat funny and he would catch that."

After two months in the program, Riddle's symptoms included tingling in her extremities and an abnormal drop in blood pressure--symptoms serious enough to warrant Riddle's admission to a hospital for a full battery of tests, including heart catheterization. The results surprised everyone.

"They found out that I have no closed arteries, nothing that?s going to make me have a heart attack," she said. "I still have the irregular heartbeat, but now I can breathe so much easier and I'm so much happier."

"These were transient abnormalities. She would continue to experience them, but they weren't indicative of a more serious condition," Shaw said. "We showed her that physical exertion didn't bring them on. Learning that was a relief for her, and when she started feeling better, her confidence came back."

Riddle's confidence came back in a big way once she realized her heart arrhythmia didn't signal an impending stroke or heart attack. After 13 years of relative isolation, she has reentered the world by taking a job at the Caldwell Christian Ministry Food Bank.

"Now I don't have to worry. I have the courage to come out and get a job," she said. "I absolutely love working here. I get to work with people who are in such need of help--I know how it feels, because 2-3 months ago I couldn't go out. I couldn't do anything. Now, I can give back to the people here with my love and my hands. That?s all because of this program. It's let me live again." The program is designed specifically for those who are geographically displaced or at a lower socioeconomic level. Physical therapy students work with the cardiac rehabilitation patients long-distance, using state-of-the-art technology that enables them to talk and view ECG data simultaneously as they monitor heart patients and guide exercise therapy.

"This shows that in this area there are many patients who fall through the cracks," Shaw said. "Only two in 10 patients who deserve cardiac rehabilitation get what they need, and one reason for that is convenience--they live too great a distance from a medical facility. This program changes that."