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Heart Failure

Emergency Care | Diagnostics | Treatment & Management | Patient Resources


joint commission sealWe are one of the first 25 hospitals in America to be certified by the Joint Commission for heart failure care. We have continuously earned the Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of ApprovalTM for heart failure care since 2007. We are dedicated to helping our heart failure patients maximize their health and quality of life.

What causes heart failure?

Heart Failure is caused by the heart’s inability to pump blood effectively; this can be caused by coronary heart disease, in which the arteries providing blood to the heart become narrowed by plaque accumulations.

In addition to coronary heart disease, causes of heart failure include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Certain infectious diseases
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Heart valve damage

Other factors leading to heart failure may include:

  • Age. Your risk of heart problems increases as you get older.
  • Family history of heart disease. You are at higher risk if a parent or sibling had cardiovascular disease, especially at an early age.
  • Congenital defects. Birth defects that affect the size, shape or function
    of the heart can cause heart failure and other cardiac problems.

What are symptoms of heart failure?

If you have risk factors for heart disease or experience any symptoms of heart failure, please contact your doctor immediately. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Extreme tiredness or weakness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Swelling in extremities
  • Confusion
  • Poor appetite

How is heart failure diagnosed?

If you are having symptoms of heart failure, your regular physician may order a diagnostic test such as an echocardiogram or refer you to a cardiologist. An echocardiogram uses safe, painless sound waves to determine how well the heart is functioning, including providing your ejection fraction.

“Ejection fraction” is the percentage of blood that is pumped out of the heart with each contraction. It is used to monitor the pumping efficiency of your heart. In a healthy heart, each contraction pushes out 50 to 75 percent of the blood in the heart. A normal ejection fraction is about 60 percent.

Diagnostic procedures may include

All of these diagnostic capabilities are available at St. Mary’s.

Is heart failure a “death sentence”?

Definitely not. Heart failure can be controlled and managed. Modern treatments such as those available through St. Mary’s can help most heart failure patients continue to lead active, meaningful lives for many years. Talk to your cardiac specialist to develop the treatment plan that is right for you. Common treatment options include:

  • Weight loss and management
    Because the swelling, fatigue and shortness of breath that often come with heart failure can make exercise difficult, many heart failure patients become overweight. Excess weight increases the strain on all parts of your body, including your heart, and also makes exercise harder and more uncomfortable. Safe, supervised weight loss can reduce symptoms, improve heart function, and help other organs such as the lungs, brain and kidneys.
  • Medication therapy
    Medicines such as ACE-inhibitors, Beta Blockers and diuretics can reduce the workload on the heart and relieve the build-up of fluids in the body

For more links, resources, and information, visit the St. Mary’s Heart Success Program page.

How can I prevent heart failure?

Most of the factors that cause heart failure also cause heart attack, stroke and other serious health problems. The good news is that many of the most important factors are within your control.

Preventing Heart Failure through diet and lifestyle change.

  • Maintain and monitor weight. Weigh yourself daily. If you notice a weight gain of more than 3-5 pounds per week, call your doctor.
  • Exercise. Exercise enhances the health of your heart and lungs and controls blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, talk to your doctor about effective ways to end your tobacco addiction.
  • Choose a diet low in sodium and rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, low in fats, sugars and processed foods. A registered dietitian can help you make the transition from an unhealthy diet to a healthy one; ask your doctor for a referral.
  • Use alcohol in moderation or not at all.
  • Be advised: Cocaine and certain other illegal substances can cause serious damage to the heart, sometimes on the first use.

Heart failure treatment and maintenance

Cardiac catheterization

In the event of a heart attack or coronary blockage, interventional cardiology services, including emergency and non-emergent angioplasty and stenting, are performed at St. Mary’s Cardiac Catheterization/Electrophysiology Laboratory.

Coumadin clinic

Coumadin, also known as Warfarin, is a drug that helps prevent blood clots from forming and blocking arteries in the heart, brain or other organs. Patients taking Coumadin receive fast, convenient monitoring at St. Mary’s Laboratory. Call (706) 389-2389 for the clinic’s operating hours.

Device implantation

Several types of cardiac devices can be implanted at St. Mary’s to improve heart function and return the heart to a normal rhythm. Broadly, these devices fall into three types. All can be at St. Mary’s Cardiac Catheterization/Electrophysiology Laboratory right here in Athens.

  • Pacemakers – Help hearts keep a steady and appropriate pace
  • ICDs – Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators constantly monitor heart rhythm and can deliver a life-saving shock if the heart begins fibrillating.
  • ICRDs – In addition to helping the heart maintain an appropriate pace and delivering a shock if the heart begins fibrillating, implantable cardiac resynchronization devices help the appropriate chambers contract at the same time. Simultaneous contractions help improve heart function and boost the ejection fraction.


  • Barnes-Jewish Hospital, “Understanding Ejection Fraction”
  •, “Ejection fraction: What does it measure?”
  • Guidant Corporation
  • Discovery Hospital
  • National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus
  • “Managing Heart Failure,” Hospital Educators Resource Catalogue, Inc. (HERC Publishing)

Physician review:

  • John Layher, MD
    Oconee Heart and Vascular Center

Emergency care

St. Mary’s provides a complete continuum of cardiac care from diagnostics to rehabilitation. If you present with symptoms of heart failure or cardiac distress, St. Mary’s Emergency services include:

  • A fully staffed and equipped emergency department open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • State-of-the-art emergency diagnostics, including an ultra-high-speed 64-slice CT scanner, that is directly accessible from St. Mary’s Emergency Department
  • The most up-to-date, evidence-based practice protocols available
  • Direct routing to the cardiac catheterization laboratory for emergency treatment of a heart attack.
  • Experienced physicians, mid-levels, nurses and other staff fully trained to respond to cardiac emergencies

Patient Resources

Your best source of information is your doctor. If you are concerned about your risk factors or believe you may be developing early symptoms, schedule an appointment with him or her. Be sure to write down your questions and bring them with you. It’s also good to bring a family member or friend to help you remember what the doctor says. If you need to find a physician, you can use our find-a-doc feature here.

For more links, resources, and information, visit the St. Mary’s Heart Success Program page.