Ignoring symptoms led to extreme problems for local woman
Editor’s note: This story by Cathy Dyson will appear in the Healthy Living section on Sunday, March 25, 2012.
BY CATHY DYSON
When Bettina Stancil was 29, her blood pressure climbed so high, the vessels in her eye exploded.
Stancil ended up legally blind from the damage and from treatments meant to correct it. As bad as it was, the loss of vision marked the beginning of her quest to reclaim her health.
Now 36, Stancil has spent almost eight years trying to control blood pressure and heart failure, diabetes and side effects from the 180 pounds she put on during the ordeal.
The Caroline County woman, who is 6 feet tall, finally can talk about her extreme situation. She doesn’t want anyone to do what she did.
“I look back and there are so many things that I would love to change, but I can’t,” Stancil said. “What I can do is help others by sharing my story. Please don’t go and ignore things that are happening to you. And never take anything for granted. I thought I was having acid reflux, and it was heart failure.”
Stancil was diagnosed with high blood pressure at 16, diabetes at 23. Both run rampant in her family.
African–Americans are more than twice as likely to suffer from diabetes and at greater risk for complications than others, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Stancil developed gestational diabetes while pregnant with her only child, Jonathan. He was delivered nine weeks early, in March 1997, because her weight and blood pressure skyrocketed.
“I gained 110 pounds for a three-pound baby,” said Stancil, laughing. “They used to call my belly the beach ball.”
A year later, she had full-blown Type 2 diabetes. Then came female-related problems, when she bled for months on end. She was put on birth-control pills, which were stopped when she had a blood clot from her mid-thigh to her mid-calf.
By the time Stancil was 25, her health had stabilized and she was able to get a job. She worked at the front desk of a hotel, making $7.25 an hour. It was too much to qualify for Medicaid, which she had while pregnant, but not enough to afford health insurance.
‘I KIND OF LET IT GO’
Several times, Stancil went to an emergency room when she had problems, but bills ran so high, her wages were garnished. When she went to a free clinic in Richmond, she missed a whole day of work, which she couldn’t afford as a single mother.
She took insulin daily, but no other medicine, and didn’t see a doctor during her mid- to late 20s. She also was dealing with personal traumas: her father and grandmother died, and her brother was imprisoned.
When Stancil started to show signs of fatigue and throw up after meals, she blamed stress and everything going on in her life. She thought she had acid reflux.
When her feet swelled, she assumed it was because she stood a lot.
When she had spots in her vision, she listened to a co-worker who said it was nothing to worry about.
“I kind of just let it go. I was working and trying to help my mom and taking care of my son,” Stancil said, her voice trailing off.
Her mother, Betty, added: “And when you’re young, you think the world is on your side.”
‘VEINS THRASHING AROUND’
Stancil’s world changed dramatically in summer 2004 when spots expanded to cover her entire eye.
“The whole room was gone, I couldn’t see out of my right eye,” she said.
She eventually saw a retinal specialist who said her eye had exploded.
“It looked like someone had taken a dagger and slashed the eyeball,” she said. “I could see veins thrashing around.”
Treatments that followed weren’t for the faint of heart. She had six laser surgeries, a ghastly infection, procedures with torturously long needles and a surgery in which her eye was cut in four places to slip in a silicon bubble to hold the retina.
“That was a horrible surgery,” she said. “If you can imagine a fire hydrant in your eye, it was that kind of pressure.”
Lasers meant to save the remaining vision caused scarring and detached retinas. Stancil was left legally blind in both eyes.
STILL, SHE PRESSES ON
When Stancil saw a medical doctor, a month after her eyeball exploded, her blood pressure was 235/160. She was hospitalized, and the process began to address other problems.
Stancil was diagnosed with hypertensive retinopathy—damage to the retina from high blood pressure—and congestive heart failure. When Stancil started seeing Dr. P.V. Ravindra, a cardiologist in Mechanicsville, her heart’s performance was measured at 25 percent on a test where normal results are more than twice that.
“It’s not very common, especially with someone this young,” the cardiologist said.
Stancil, who couldn’t work and again was on Medicaid, started medicine to bring down her blood pressure and prevent clots. Because of her size and unusual reactions, she required inordinate dosages. She takes 30 milligrams of the blood-thinner Coumadin daily. Most people need 5 to 10 milligrams, her doctor said.
Her diabetes specialist, Dr. Brenda Armenti–Kapros in Mechanicsville, “tried every kind of insulin there is” until one worked.
“Her body has tremendous resistance to it,” the doctor said.
Because her heart was enlarged, Stancil retains fluid, which adds more weight and stress on joints. That makes exercise painful or even impossible.
“I know she’s very frustrated, but she’s remained high-spirited despite everything,” said Armenti–Kapros. “I’ve never seen anyone press on the way she has.”
‘A WILL TO SURVIVE’
As her heart function, blood pressure and diabetes have stabilized, Stancil has rediscovered her fierce independence—and sense of style. In 2010, she finished classes at the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired in Richmond, where she learned to cook, dress herself and make jewelry, which she sees as her new purpose in life.
“It amazes me that she’s been able to bounce back and find her joy in life again,” said her longtime friend Khristina Anderson.
Stancil still does her own hair and makes sure her color-coordinated outfits match her accessories and nails.
“Wherever she goes, she’s a striking person,” said Marcia Anderson, Khristina’s mother.
Small gems mark the numbers on her cellphone, and Stancil flies through the key pad when she texts. Stancil also figured out how to give herself insulin by gauging the dosage based on where the plunger is.
And, she doesn’t mess around anymore when it comes to checkups. Her cardiologist called her a model patient, and her diabetes doctor said she’s done remarkable things.
“Sometimes things happen before people realize they’re not bullet-proof,” Armenti–Kapros said. “She has a will to survive that is definitely real.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425
SIDEBAR: HEEDING THE SYMPTOMS
The friend who told Bettina Stancil that the “floaters”—or specks she was seeing in her eye—were nothing to worry about was partly right. In most cases, they are harmless.
But when paired with high blood pressure or other diseases, such as hardening of the arteries, they can become serious problems, according to medical websites.
Stancil was diagnosed with high blood pressure at 16, but let it go untreated until her late 20s. After vessels in her eye exploded, she was diagnosed with hypertensive retinopathy and congestive heart failure at 29.
Both were caused by high blood pressure. With both conditions, the higher the blood pressure and the longer it stays untreated, the greater the risk for serious damage, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Stancil also had extreme fatigue, heartburn and regular vomiting. She thought she had acid reflux, caused by stress, but the issues were caused by heart failure—and 90 percent of people with heart failure have high blood pressure, said MyOptumHealth.com.
High blood pressure is known as the silent killer because it typically has no symptoms of its own. Symptoms appear when more serious problems develop.
“We have a lot of patients who ignore their problems and come to us when it’s too late,” said Dr. P.V. Ravindra, Stancil’s cardiologist in Mechanicsville. “Once the damage sets in, there’s very little we can do.”
Stancil is caught in several vicious cycles. If she could lose weight, her heart disease, blood pressure and diabetes would benefit. But the heart disease causes her to retain fluid, which puts more stress on overworked joints and causes pain during exercise.
Stancil’s cardiologist and diabetes doctor have recommended
a type of gastric bypass for her, but are having trouble getting Medicaid’s approval. Her cardiologist wants her closely monitored during surgery because of her history of blood clots and heart failure, but Medicaid won’t cover the extra measures.
The two doctors are submitting paperwork again. “Whatever it takes, we’re going to support her all the way, so we’ll keep on trying,” said Dr. Brenda Armenti–Kapros in Mechanicsville.
– Cathy Dyson