Medical Hero Spotlight: Brittany Foster, Pulmonary Hypertension Patient Advocate

Living with Pulmonary Hypertension

Brittany Foster may not appear to be struggling with a chronic condition upon first impression, however, she has been navigating a series of complex medical diagnoses for decades. At birth, doctors discovered Britt had a blockage in her intestines. She was rushed into emergency surgery, where it was quickly discovered she had also been born with a heart defect when she went into sudden cardiac arrest. At less than a year old, Britt was taking medication for heart failure and had a procedure to repair the hole in the bottom of her heart, called a ventricular septal defect. Soon after, she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a condition that forces her heart to work overtime to pump blood to her lungs.

Despite this diagnosis early on, Britt enjoyed a relatively normal childhood. She was very active, participating in nearly every sport with no issues. For years, the only evidence of her condition were the scars from her surgery as an infant.

Unfortunately, around the age of thirteen, Britt found herself struggling with shortness of breath while playing sports. Her cardiologist recommended she take a pulmonary function test, believing the symptom to be exercise-induced asthma. She was given inhalers and continued with daily life but soon found the inhalers weren’t fully effective.

“At that age, all I wanted to do was what my friends were doing. I loved playing sports, so I kept at it, despite my continued breathing difficulties,” Britt says.

Upon graduation, Britt began a career path in education as a teacher, a role that exemplified her passion for advocacy and helping others. “I wanted to advocate for the students who need resources, or who in some cases, did not have the ability to speak up for themselves,” Britt says. Four years into her career, Britt was managing an eighth-grade classroom when her condition began to impact her daily life again. “Many people don’t realize what a physically demanding job teaching is,” Britt reflects. “I was on my feet all day walking around the classroom and bending and crouching very often. One day I got incredibly lightheaded and ended up passing out in the classroom.”

Changing Directions: From Teaching to Rare Disease Advocacy
“Unfortunately, a big part of my story has been repeated mistreatment from medical professionals. As a young woman who physically appeared to be in good health, assumptions were made about me by doctors who weren’t interested in my prior history or symptoms,” Britt says.

After being rushed to the ER from her classroom, Britt’s doctors concluded she fainted due to dehydration despite her history of heart disease. They planned to send her home to rest with fluids, but Britt knew something else was wrong.

“I was lucky that right before being discharged, a nurse started asking more probing questions about what I had been doing right before fainting. We decided I should walk down the hallway with a heart monitor and oxygen sensor to evaluate,” Britt recalls. Within minutes, Britt’s oxygen levels had dropped rapidly, and doctors finally decided to admit her into the cardiac unit for further treatment.

Britt was released later from the hospital with an oxygen tank to assist her breathing and was told to adapt her life around her pulmonary hypertension. “I was only twenty-six years old,” Britt says. “The tanks were huge and difficult to get around with. I wasn’t given any resources on how to adapt my life, but I knew I wanted to get back into my classroom and start teaching again.”

Britt went back to teaching for several months and finished the school year but struggled with her oxygen tank throughout. Over the summer, she met with her doctors who strongly advised her to change career paths. Britt made the hardest decision of her life to retire from teaching. “I felt incredibly discouraged and depressed watching other teachers move on with a new school year, while I was sick in bed,” Britt recalls.

Finding Community & Support

During this time, Britt struggled with depression and anxiety. She turned to writing as an outlet, sharing her experience on social media, and eventually going on to write for a nonprofit organization that promotes mental health awareness. Soon after, she was hired as a columnist for BioNews to write about pulmonary hypertension. “From there I was able to start connecting with other patients, caregivers, and medical professionals, which helped build the sense of community and purpose that I had been missing,” Britt says.

In the years since, Britt most recently worked on the People & Culture team, a position that she loved. “I am grateful that BioNews truly values employees’ health and makes sure to accommodate our needs.”

Throughout her medical journey, Britt says her friends and family have been her biggest supporters. She encourages others with rare diseases to not be afraid to speak up about their experiences.

Continued Medical Treatement

Since her initial diagnosis, Britt has continued to undergo medical treatment, as doctors began to better understand her condition. At age twenty-nine, it was discovered the Britt was born with an anatomically misplaced aorta, in addition to the hole in her heart.

“My aorta branches off to the right, so all my arteries are opposite. I was in the hospital, sick and unable to keep food down. Doctors were trying to diagnose me with bulimia, until a GI specialist stepped in and found that because of my aorta, my arteries had formed a tight branch around my esophagus, making it painful to eat or drink,” Britt says.

Because of the long-term compression on her trachea and esophagus, Britt needed surgery to repair the damage. Unfortunately, this condition has caused permanent nerve damage, gastroparesis, and esophageal dysphasia. Since her surgery, Britt has become feeding-tube dependent to ensure she has adequate nutrition.

Advice for Patients

As someone who has navigated the healthcare system with a rare condition, Britt has learned valuable lessons along the way that she shares with others whenever she can.

Find a medical professional you can trust to advocate for your care.

“Rebuilding trust in medical professionals has been a challenge for me, but finding trusted doctors I can rely on has been a big help. I have an excellent relationship with my primary physician who leads my care and truly advocates for me,” Britt says.

Create a medical overview binder to share in emergencies and with new doctors.

Emergency rooms are fast paced and fast moving. When admitted, you may end up speaking with multiple doctors who haven’t spoken directly with each other about your condition. Britt recommends having one provider you trust assist you in building a document that includes all your medical diagnoses with explanations, any medications, or treatments you are currently taking, and the contact information and signature of that doctor. “I bring this folder any time I have to visit the ER and have the file stored on my phone to show staff as well,” Britt says. These documents can be helpful for treatment so that new doctors are aware of your baseline levels and other conditions.

Surround yourself with people who understand your condition and who support you.

“My medical condition has made my life and daily routine very inconsistent,” Britt says. “I never know when something will come up and I’ll need to cancel plans. Socializing takes a lot more planning now, which can be difficult.” If someone in your life is living with a chronic condition or a rare disease, Britt recommends becoming educated about their condition and learning to adjust expectations when it comes to socializing and other daily commitments.

Trust the timing of your life.

“Six years ago, I thought I had no future and I had lost a career I was passionate about because of my rare disease. Today, I have a supportive community of people who understand my experience and for that I am grateful.”

Additional Resources:

To search for medical conditions in a specific location, visit our Search Clinical Trials page.

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For volunteer opportunities with CISCRP, visit our Volunteer page.

Written by Lindsey Elliott, Marketing & Communications Manager, CISCRP |

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