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Published on February 11, 2018

Twins Karen Harman-McGowan and Sharon Harman-Hill with Dr Elizabeth Guastello in between
Twins Undergo Heart Defibrillation Together 

A renovated LMH cath lab

Renovation will begin this year on the heart catheterization lab, which will become a top-of-the line system – the first of its kind to be located in a U.S. community hospital. Typically limited to a handful of academic medical centers, the new system will have capability to help more patients via new and expanded procedures, while even further decreasing radiation exposure for our medical team. The community has donated nearly half of the $2.7 million price tag.

By Caroline Trowbridge, Lawrence Memorial Hospital

Identical twins Karen Harman-McGowan and Sharon Harman-Hill are close, very close.

“We always had a best friend,” Sharon said.

They’ve worked together for the past 20 years at Lawrence Plastic Surgery. They tell people they were womb mates. They even like to stand facing each other proclaiming they are “mirror twins” because Sharon’s left-handed and Karen’s right-handed. And they’ll put their palms together to illustrate that point.

So it’s not exactly a surprise that both women were diagnosed last fall with a dangerous congenital heart condition. And it certainly is not much of a surprise that the 56-year-old Lawrence women were wheeled into Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s Heart Catheterization Lab, where cardiologist Ravi Yarlagadda implanted defibrillators in their chests – on the same afternoon last week.

Of course, the twins had hoped they could be in the Cath Lab together, holding hands, during their implantations. But that wasn’t exactly realistic.

As is usual with the twins, the older Karen went first, followed by Sharon about an hour later.

About five months ago Karen – again, she was first – and then Sharon were told they have a rare congenital heart disease. There are fancy words that cardiologists use to describe their condition – non-compaction cardiomyopathy – but it basically means their heart muscles don’t push enough blood out of their hearts to deliver sufficient oxygen to the rest of their bodies. And it can decrease life expectancy.

“The thing that we have is a very rare condition that usually happens to males,” Karen said.

The first indication came last September, when Karen wasn’t feeling quite right. “Too much caffeine, I thought.” That was the start of a journey to discover what was wrong. Sharon was diagnosed several weeks later.

Both women are on medication for heart failure. “And blood thinners to protect them from blood clots that could form in their hearts,” according to Dr. Elizabeth Guastello of Cardiovascular Specialists of Lawrence

The twins’ cardiac problems started before birth, when part of their hearts didn’t form correctly, Dr. Guastello said. Not only is less oxygenated blood leaving their hearts than normal hearts, their hearts also are more susceptible to abnormal rhythms – and more likely to form fatal blood clots.

Karen’s condition is worse than Sharon’s, so she tires easily. And before last week’s implantation, she wore an external defibrillator, which consisted of a vest and a monitor. She had it on 24 hours a day, seven days a week – except when she bathed. If necessary, the device would detect an abnormal heart rhythm, a potentially fatal event. Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary.

Now, the internal defibrillators – which deliver shocks described much like getting kicked in the chest by a mule -- will take over those duties.

“The hope is they never need it,” Dr. Guastello said. “I call it a guardian angel. It’s just watching.”

After an overnight stay at LMH, the women were home with their husbands. And they both had high praise for the cath lab team, for Dr. Guastello and others who cared for them.

“We had nothing but the best of care,” Karen said. “And that comes from the bottom of our hearts.”

Of course, she was quick to add that was not a pun.

There’s no cure for the twins’ condition. And that’s clearly a concern, especially for Karen.

“The only thing that they say will help my situation is a heart transplant,” Karen said. “But I’m not ready for a heart transplant.”

However, she is hopeful about the future and about what brilliant minds might create for her.

“Technology is amazing,” Karen said. “I’m always reading about what’s available.”

— Caroline Trowbridge is marketing communications manager for Lawrence Memorial Hospital, which is a major sponsor of Lawrence Journal-World’s health section. She can be reached at caroline.trowbridge@lmh.org

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