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Pulmonary Hypertension

On the 10-year anniversary of her pulmonary hypertension diagnosis, Tara tells the incredible story of how she survived without a lung transplant and got her life back.

Two days after celebrating her 30th birthday, Tara Suplicki climbed a flight of stairs at her job and collapsed. The incident shocked her co-workers who encouraged her to go to a hospital as soon as possible to find out what had caused her to lose consciousness. But Tara chalked the incident up to fatigue and a lifelong battle with asthma. She convinced herself and everyone else that she was fine.

Tara was, after all, an active young woman with a relatively clean bill of health. She often spent upwards of 80 hours a week working as a department store manager—a job that she loved, and still found time to travel, go to the gym, and attend gatherings with family and friends.

But in the days following the incident, Tara’s symptoms continued and grew worse; every time she’d take a walk she’d feel lightheaded and faint. Tara couldn’t avoid her problems any longer; she knew she needed to see a doctor. When she eventually scheduled an appointment with her family doctor, she figured all she’d need was a new prescription for her asthma medication.

That doctor’s visit led to a battery of tests and an unexpected diagnosis. A local heart specialist informed Tara that she had pulmonary hypertension. She had never heard of the disease before but she would soon learn more about it than she ever wanted to know. 

The path to Penn Medicine

Tara, pulmonary hypertension patientPulmonary hypertension occurs when blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs is too high. The pressure slowly closes off the arteries of the lungs making the right side of the heart work harder than usual.

There is no cure for pulmonary hypertension. A lung transplant is often the only option for people living with the disease. 

Tara was referred to several local medical centers that offered lung transplants. She originally opted to go to a hospital close to her home but ultimately chose Penn Medicine because of experience. Tara researched and learned that Penn Medicine has performed more than double the amount of lung transplants than any other center in the region.

The hospital in her area had never done a lung transplant for a person with pulmonary hypertension; had she opted to go there, Tara would have been their first case. She knew she didn’t want to be some doctor’s ‘first’ for such an important procedure.

New therapy gives Tara new hope

Once she came to the Penn Pulmonary Hypertension/Pulmonary Vascular Disease Program in the Harron Lung Center at Penn Medicine, it only took two and a half weeks for Tara to be placed on the transplant wait list. She was already impressed with Penn Medicine’s swift attention to her needs, but it was the efforts of her doctor, Kerri Akaya Smith, MD that really made Tara feel confident that she’d come to the right place.

While waiting on the lung transplant list, Tara’s condition worsened. She constantly needed painkillers to manage her discomfort and breathing with the assistance of an oxygen pump. For a while, her breathing was so unstable that she was unable to drive or walk.

There was no way to know how long Tara would be waiting for a match, but Dr. Smith was determined to find the fastest and most effective solution to help Tara get back to living her life.

So Dr. Smith began searching for any pulmonary hypertension medications that might be a good fit for Tara. She identified a new medication that she believed would help improve Tara’s symptoms until she found a donor. Even though the drug was new to the market at the time, Dr. Smith advocated on Tara’s behalf to get her early access to the treatment.

Soon after she began taking the medication, Tara’s symptoms drastically improved. She felt immediate relief from headaches and nausea. Within a month, she no longer needed her pain medication or oxygen.

Her condition improved so much, she’s no longer needs a lung transplant.

Tara says she’s grateful that Dr. Smith fought for her to have the medication she needed and for the excellent care she received at Penn Medicine.

“I know that the drug is special; it’s not for every patient. But Dr. Smith knew that it was my only hope. I’m so glad she was aware of it and that she was confident enough to use it for me,” Tara said.

“Dr. Smith treated me as a whole patient. She was totally concerned about my mental health, my physical health; me as a total patient. I give Penn Medicine an A plus. They worked fast and very efficiently.”

Back to living life

Tara, pulmonary hypertension patientTara is now back to work and doing the things she loves, like visiting family and friends and taking long walks without worrying about her breathing. 

“It’s the little things that I have a new-found appreciation for. It’s being able to just take a walk around my block and enjoy the lake views. It’s just being able to drive to my sister’s house when I want to see the kids.  It’s just being able to go out and just live life,” she said.

“I’m back working again part-time. I’m driving again, which is wonderful because for a while there I didn’t have a license because I was on so many painkillers. I can go anywhere I want to go and travel more because I’m not on so much oxygen. I can live my life again.”

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