Woman With Deadly Heart Defect Has New Outlook On Life After Surgery

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
Katie Garret

Following the sudden death of her brother at age 14, Katie Garret and other members of her family were tested for a rare heart defect, Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), which runs through family blood lines and is often undetected. Katie, who was just 8-years-old at the time, tested positive along with her brother, mother and grandmother. For years following her diagnosis, Katie suffered from dizzy spells, difficulty breathing and debilitating chest pressure. Recently, her symptoms became so severe that she was unable to work, which prompted her to seek specialized care at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, one of 11 HCM Centers for Excellence in the United States.

HCM affects approximately 600,000 Americans each year and claims the lives of roughly 6,000. It is the most common genetic heart defect and most frequent cause of cardiac sudden death in young people and athletes. The defect causes heart muscle to thicken and usually affects the muscle wall separating the two lower pumping chambers of the heart, an area known as the interventricular septum. One of the most frightening characteristics of this disease is that many patients have no symptoms. They lead normal, active lives, yet may succumb to sudden death as a first indication that the disease was even present.

“This can be a very frightening disease,” said Robert O. Bonow, MD, Northwestern Memorial’s chief of Cardiology and co-director of the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. “But thanks to today’s advances in the detection and treatment of HCM, it is now less concerning as more and more lives are being saved.”


HCM is usually diagnosed during the late teens or early twenties as it most commonly develops in association with growth. Diagnosis can be made through an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart, or through an MRI which is more extensive testing to fully evaluate the amount and location of muscle thickening. Katie’s diagnosis of HCM limited her activity as a child and as she got older her symptoms became increasingly worse to the point where performing simple chores became monumental.

The treatment of HCM depends on the severity of muscle thickening, the presence or absence of a narrowing outflow passage, and the results of risk evaluation. Treatment options include medication, electrical cardioversion, implantation of a defibrillator, implantation of a pacemaker, cardiac surgery and heart transplantation.

In June, Katie traveled from her home state of Hawaii to undergo a surgical procedure at Northwestern Memorial called a septal myectomy in which the thickened part of the heart is removed. Prior to surgery, she was experiencing symptoms which medication did not relieve, including light-headedness and heart palpitations.

“Patients with HCM who don’t respond to medication typically respond well to surgery,” said Patrick M. McCarthy, MD, chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery and co-director of the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. “A septal myectomy is a low-risk surgery in the majority of patients. We have patients come to see us from far away for surgery because of our success with the procedure.”

Today, Garrett is back in Hawaii and enjoying her normal daily activities without the devastating symptoms she used to experience. “I immediately felt better and I haven’t had any other problems that I was experiencing,” she said. “I’m very happy.”