Derrik Neal was first diagnosed with an idiopathic form of pulmonary arterial hypertension (IPAH) 17 years ago, during a time when this rare, fatal disease had a grim survival rate of 5 years at most. His earliest symptoms first manifested as shortness of breath, which he simply related to his being overweight. This eventually progressed to several occasions of loss of consciousness, which prompted him to consult with a specialist. Thanks to UT Southwestern’s recently accredited Pulmonary Hypertension Program, Neal still has control over his condition nearly two decades after. “Obviously, I can’t play basketball. But as far as everyday life, nobody knows I have pulmonary hypertension unless I tell them,” said Neal, 55. “I was not going to let this beat me. I had too many good things in my life − my wife, my kids.”
UT Southwestern is one of the pioneering medical institutions in the US, and the only one in Texas to be accredited in the Pulmonary Hypertension Association’s program for Pulmonary Hypertension Care Centers. “An accredited Pulmonary Hypertension Care Center is not just an institution that treats patients who have pulmonary hypertension. You have to be at the forefront of treatment, as well as being involved in clinical trials and moving the field forward,” said Dr. Fernando Torres, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, who developed UT Southwestern’s Pulmonary Hypertension Program 15 years ago. UT Southwestern exclusively offers access to National Institutes of Health- and industry-sponsored PH clinical studies within the region of North Texas.
According to Dr. Kelly Chin, the Director of UT Southwestern’s Pulmonary Hypertension Program, UT Southwestern’s PH program caters to 250 to 300 new patients every year, making it the largest referral center in the region, and places it among the 10 largest PH centers in America. The program earned its PHA accreditation by consistently being at the forefront of treatment and research, and complying with the following criteria: The center’s director, coordinator, and staff must meet advanced education and experience criteria, the center must actively manage at least 75 to100 patients, and the center must have sophisticated physical facilities to meet all patient medical needs.
“The first oral medication was approved in November 2001, and now we are up to seven oral, two inhaled, and two intravenous medications,” said Dr. Chin, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine in the division of Cardiology “We were involved in key clinical trials during the development of six of these medications.”
The average age patients receive an accurate diagnosis of PH remains at 45 years old. While symptoms can become apparent at any age, their nonspecific nature makes the disease difficult to detect early on, when treatment would be most beneficial. “Most patients come to us not knowing what type of pulmonary hypertension they have, and treatment is very dependent on the type,” she said. UT Southwestern’s PH program strives to pinpoint the exact PH subtype to be able to administer the most appropriate treatments and lifestyle modifications.