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Simple changes add up for John, who turned his heart health around

Diagnosed with heart failure, John Kulstad couldn’t walk short distances without becoming exhausted. University of Minnesota Health Heart Care specialists helped him turn his health around.
John’s heart failure was so bad that he couldn’t walk short distances without becoming exhausted. But with help from Cardiologist Cindy Martin, MD, he was able to turn his heart health around.
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Seven years ago, John Kulstad didn’t realize how sick he truly was. 

“I couldn’t walk short distances without having to take a break. It was exhausting,” John said. “I would be out of breath just walking from my bedroom to the kitchen.”

What he first thought was pneumonia was actually advanced heart failure.

“I couldn’t believe it when the doctors told me, it was really scary,” he said. 

Getting John the care he needed

John was referred to University of Minnesota Health Heart Care specialists and diagnosed with a low ejection fraction and chronic systolic heart failure. His left ventricle wasn’t pumping blood efficiently; it was taking a toll on John’s body and his quality of life.

Our heart specialists and their teams build upon a 60-year legacy of clinical care, research and innovation, including the world’s first open-heart surgery. Learn more about our expertise.

“Ejection fraction is a measurement expressed as a percentage of how much blood the left ventricle pumps out with each contraction,” said Cardiologist Cindy Martin, MD, John’s heart failure cardiologist. “A normal range is anywhere from 50 to 70 percent and in John’s case, his heart was operating at 37 percent.”

Not only was John’s heart working overtime—it was so enlarged that it didn’t even resemble a heart, John said. “I had an echocardiogram and I’ll never forget it; my heart looked like a water balloon,” John said. His heart failure was so advanced that he was on the fast track for a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) or a heart transplant.

But John was determined to turn his life around. 

Taking care of John’s heart

Cindy Martin, MD, had three goals for John. “I told John I wanted to try to improve his low ejection fraction, reduce his symptoms and improve his quality of life.”

In addition to medication, Martin advised John to make lifestyle changes such as regular physical activity, limiting salt intake, and managing his stress levels.

John followed his care team's orders. “I started eating better, I took the medications I was prescribed, and joined the heart failure support group,” he said. He also became a familiar face at a monthly support group.

“I just wanted to gain as much information as I could and I learned so much from other patients who have heart failure,” John said.

“It’s been amazing to see John’s health improve,” said Cardiology Nurse Coordinator Samantha Boettger, RN, a support group facilitator. “John is such a valuable asset to our group and a wealth of knowledge to others who have been diagnosed with heart failure.”

Back to living his life

Soon John noticed something had changed. “I told Dr. Martin that my heart felt different and I asked her if I could have another echocardiogram,” John said.

John was right — his ejection fraction went from 37 to 45-50 percent. The improvement that John experienced was nothing short of remarkable. 

“I literally could feel my heart getting stronger and I could see it on the screen. It looked like a heart again,” John said. “My heart now resembles a heart of 68-year-old man — and I’m 70!

With Martin telling him there’s even more room for improvement, John is back to enjoying life. He attributes his health transformation to the care he received.

“Now I walk a mile each day with my neighbor’s dog, Lily, and I can do it without taking a break,” says John. “Some days, I even feel 20 years younger than I actually am.”

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