Prescription for rare heart disorder: Think outside the box

Julie Christoph
At age 27, Julie was diagnosed with a rare condition in which the heart shrinks in size.

In 2011, Julie Christoph was 27 years old, working full-time, finishing up her nursing degree, and preparing to launch an exciting new career. When she began experiencing a racing heartbeat and dizzy spells that grew more frequent and more debilitating, she went to a doctor. And then another doctor, and then another doctor. 

“I knew that something was wrong,” she says, but for almost two years she was told by physicians that it was essentially all in her head. Meanwhile, her symptoms grew more crippling. “I was prescribed beta blockers, but that just made me feel worse,” she says. “By the time I got to UT Southwestern, I had moved back in with my parents because I couldn’t do more than walk to the bathroom and back without fainting.”

But then Christoph saw UT Southwestern cardiologist James de Lemos, M.D., who referred her to Benjamin Levine, M.D., founding Director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine. By the end of that appointment, Christoph finally had a conclusive diagnosis: postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, a rare condition in which the heart shrinks in size and can no longer maintain normal blood pressure.

Dr. Levine put Christoph on a medication-free protocol that includes a specially tailored exercise program and a high-salt diet. Levine developed this protocol specifically for people with POTS, and Christoph says it’s given her life back.

“My previous doctors told me that there was nothing else to be done and that I’d just need to find a different line of work,” she recalls. “That’s devastating for someone to hear at age 27!”

Now Christoph, who has been symptom free for two years, works as a nurse at Medical City in Dallas. And thanks to some encouragement from Dr. Levine, she is preparing to apply to medical school – her goal being eventually to help people like herself.

“I feel so fortunate to have found the physicians at UT Southwestern, and to live so close to Dr. Levine,” she says. “My UT Southwestern doctors thought outside the box; they really listened and worked with me. And that made all the difference.”

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