A UVA Heart & Vascular Center Initiative

Heart Condition Runs in the Family – Or Does It?

Posted May 17, 2016

UVA Heart & Vascular Center helps a daughter find some answers

Sara Parcell and her father, Earl Fair, have a lot in common. They both have brown eyes. They’ve both had successful careers in the military. They share a similar sense of humor, and they know how to lighten the mood with some good-natured ribbing.

Their love of laughter has helped them navigate life’s challenges, and they’ve had plenty of those. This father and daughter share a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), which sent Fair into cardiac arrest when Parcell was just 11 years old.

DCM is a disease in which the heart becomes enlarged and cannot pump blood efficiently. As many as one out of three cases of DCM are inherited. Now 34, Parcell found out two years ago that she carries the same gene responsible for her father’s heart condition.

The diagnosis came as a shock. Parcell was young and fit; an officer in the United States Army, she was in excellent physical condition and had never experienced any symptoms. When she suddenly fell ill with extreme bouts of vomiting and chest pain, she looked for a simple explanation.

“I thought it was my gallbladder,” Parcell says. “When my doctor told me it was my heart, I was in denial. I’ve seen what heart disease has put my father through – cardiac arrest, two heart transplants and a roller coaster of ups and downs for our entire family. I didn’t want to believe that it could be happening to me, too.”

Fortunately for Parcell, she knew exactly where to turn for heart care.

UVA Heart & Vascular Center

“Dr. Bergin has been taking care of my father’s heart for over 20 years,” she says. “He’s such an important part of our lives. We’ve nicknamed him the Great and Powerful Oz.”

James Bergin, MD, has more than 20 years of experience as a teacher, researcher and clinical practitioner specializing in heart failure and transplantation. He serves as medical director of Cardiac Transplant and Heart Failure at UVA Health System, and he’s been named one of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Doctors in America.

“I’ve seen the miracles that Dr. Bergin and the UVA cardiovascular team have performed for my father,” says Parcell. “They’re the reason he’s alive and thriving today. Knowing I have this team of specialists behind me provides reassurance that I can survive this. I’ve known these doctors and nurses since I was a kid. They treat me like family, and I trust them like family.”

Virginia’s First Cardiovascular Genetics Program

Knowing her condition is genetic, Parcell recently faced another frightening possibility: that her two children might carry the gene as well.

Each first-degree relative of a patient with inherited cardiovascular disease has a 50 percent chance of developing the same disease.

“Dealing with a heart failure diagnosis is stressful enough,” she says, “but knowing that my children were at risk for developing this disease was almost unbearable. Thankfully, that’s where Matthew Thomas stepped in.”

Matthew Thomas is a genetic counselor who works alongside cardiologists, surgeons and nurses at the UVA Heart & Vascular Center and UVA Children’s Hospital. With Parcell’s family history, he offered her the opportunity to test both children – ages 9 and 6 –for the gene.

“I remember exactly where I was when Matthew called me with the results,” Parcell says. “I had to pull the car over because I couldn’t focus on the road. He said, ‘Sara, today you can cry tears of joy. Both of your children tested negative for the gene.’ I was overwhelmed with relief. To know that your children are safe – that is a gift.”

With the weight of worry lifted, now Parcell can focus on her own health and wellbeing. And just like she’s done since she was a little girl, she turns to her father for support.

“My dad is my best friend. He’s my strength and my motivation. I rely on him for his advice and wisdom, and he’s shown me how to take care of myself and have a good quality of life while dealing with a heart condition. He’s my sidekick. Without the grace of God and the team at UVA, my dad wouldn’t be here to help me through this.”

Parcell is currently treating her heart condition with medication. She lives outside Charleston, WV, and travels to UVA every three months to meet with her doctors for evaluation and monitoring.

To learn more about cardiovascular genetic testing, visit genetics.uvahealth.com.


— By Melanie Dick

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