In the summer of 2016, Jaime Billotti’s life changed forever.

It began as a minor annoyance – she noticed she was having trouble breathing but attributed the problem to being “out of shape.”

“I even joked with co-workers that I needed to get to the gym,” she said.

Jaime Billotti poses with George Sokos, DO, of the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute.

But one morning while at her job as a senior executive assistant in WVU Medicine’s administration office, her symptoms intensified: she started feeling sick, her breathing was shallow, and she could not seem to get enough air.

From her office in the administration wing at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, her co-workers wheeled her to the emergency room, where she was eventually diagnosed with congestive heart failure. A CT scan revealed her left ventricle was enlarged; an echocardiogram revealed her heart's ejection fraction (EF), the percentage of blood that is pumped from the heart back out into the body, was functioning at 10 percent. The normal range is 55-60 percent or higher.

“I was nervous and scared,” Billotti said. “I had congestive heart failure! I honestly could not believe what I was hearing. How could this be?! I had just turned 40. I'm too young! I’m a mother of a nine-year-old daughter. I'm healthy and in shape. This can't be happening!”

The diagnosis hit Billotti hard. After the shock, she cried and then said she felt numb. Her thoughts turned to the future: “What's next? Am I going to live? Do I need a heart transplant? I couldn't even think about that without crying,” she said.

To make matters worse, her medication caused her blood pressure to plummet, which caused a few hospital stays. She was outfitted with a LifeVest (an external defibrillator) for three months and was tested again. The results showed no improvement.

She was referred to George Sokos, DO, then at Allegheny General in Pittsburgh but now a specialist with the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute.

“After meeting him, I felt the first bit of relief since I was diagnosed,” she said.

After extensive testing, Dr. Sokos told Billotti her heart failure was not severe enough to require a heart transplant or any other advanced therapies.

“That was the first time I felt some hope, pure hope, hope that I was going to make it,” she said.

Sokos, a fellowship-trained and board certified heart disease and heart failure specialist, admits Billotti didn’t fit the demographic of one of his typical patients. He said his patients often have a history of coronary artery disease and heart attack, which decreases the function of their heart. Billotti fell into a second category of patients who have no explanation for their illness.

For most patients, overcoming the shock of the diagnosis is a typical side-effect, but for a younger patient, with no history of health problems, it can be particularly devastating.

“It’s scary,” Sokos said. “You’re telling them that their heart’s not working and they could die, so it’s pretty intense. But Jaime has responded well to her medication and is making progress.”

After having a defibrillator implanted and adjusting to her medications, Billotti says she has arrived at a “new normal,” still experiencing some ups and downs but, for the most part, back to the quality of life she once knew.

She’s been working steadily for more than a year, caring for her daughter, and enjoying golf and outdoor activities. The batteries in the defibrillator will need to be replaced in about eight years, and the medications that keep her blood pressure low have a tiring effect. But, all things considered, Billotti is focusing on the positives.

“I’m able to do things and function better than a lot of people who have congestive heart failure,” she said. “Many of them have additional problems or conditions that prevent them from being able to do half the stuff I’m doing.”

Billotti said her experience has changed her perspective on many aspects of her life, including her appreciation for the way WVU Medicine can change lives.

“I was so happy that Dr. Sokos joined the WVU Heart and Vascular team. Just knowing I have such great physicians following me adds to my strength,” she said.

She’s not alone. Since the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute was formed in 2016, patients from around the region have flocked to Morgantown to receive top-level heart and vascular care. In 2017, the group added 19 new physicians and unveiled new, state-of-the-art facilities. Some of the procedures performed there are the first of their kind in West Virginia or among the first in the nation.

“We expected to be busy and we’re doing things we expected to do and are trained to do, but we’re doing things that weren’t possible in West Virginia a year-and-a-half ago,” Sokos said. “We’ve got a great team who can do a lot of different things and we’ve got great facilities and support from the administration.”

As the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute continues to establish itself as a crucial resource for the region, stories like Billotti’s will create a rapidly-growing legacy of success. The challenge Billotti faces now is adapting to her “new normal” and trying to establish a new routine.

“Every day is different, some are a complete struggle, but I'm alive and able to take care of my daughter and get back to a modified version of my former self.

“I wanted to share my story because I knew when I came to work, patients were my focus and we here at WVU Medicine do great things every day. But I never imagined that I would be a recipient of that fantastic care. I am truly blessed from the work family that took care of me on that life-changing day, to the faculty and staff who cared for me while I was in the hospital.

“I have always been proud to tell people that I work for WVU Medicine, but now I have seen first-hand what it means to be part of the WVU Medicine family.”

Here at WVU Medicine, we know we’re doing great things: saving lives, improving health, and working to make a difference in our state and region. If you have a great story to tell, we’d like to hear it.