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Lisa's Story: Heart Defect Discovered with Simple Test

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Lisa Kirchhoff

With a milestone birthday approaching, Independence resident Lisa Kirchhoff wanted to greet her fifth decade with a clean bill of health.

“Many years ago I worked in St. Luke’s marketing department and used to write about the Heart Check program and thought it was a great idea and decided I would do it someday,” says Kirchhoff. “Someday finally came and I went and had a Heart Check last spring.”

Heart Check is a series of five tests, to assess heart, vascular and stroke health for individuals age 40 to 70. One of those tests includes testing large arteries for plaque build-up, which determines heart attack risk. That was the test Kirchhoff was most interested in.

“I knew I always had a heart murmur and heart palpitations but never had issues,” Kirchhoff says. “Instead of receiving an ‘all clear health report’ I was shocked to learn I had a congenital heart defect.”

“Heart Check can help determine an individual’s heart attack risk but it also scans for other heart issues,” explains Georges Hajj, MD, UnityPoint Health – Cedar Rapids Cardiology Clinic cardiologist. “During Lisa’s ultrasound we noticed the right side of her heart was enlarged. This is typically what happens with an untreated atrial septal defect (ASD), which causes significant shunting of the blood from one side to the other. It can be present in an individual for a long time and may not be diagnosed until later in life. Lisa is fortunate it was discovered early. 


ASD is a congenital heart defect where the blood flows between the atria, in the upper chamber of the heart. For most individuals a septum separates the two sides but if there is an abnormal connection or hole between the chambers it can cause shunting and force one side of the heart to become enlarged. 

“Sometimes it is identified as a heart murmur and missed,” says Dr. Hajj. “Left untreated it can cause right-sided congestive heart failure. The right side will sustain damage after a period of time of living with this condition from the imbalance of blood fl w between the two sides. Eventually it will cause symptoms like leg swelling, shortness of breath and can increase pressure in the lung arteries.” 


Treatment for ASD is a procedure that closes the hole between the upper chambers of the heart. It is performed through the groin where a cardiologist is able to use a catheter to access the hole through the femoral vein. 

Cardiologists use X-ray and ultrasound imaging guidance during the procedure to locate the hole and pass a tiny device through it. Once the cardiologist determines the device is positioned over the hole, a patch is released and the hole in the heart is sealed. 

“We have performed this procedure for many years at St. Luke’s in Cedar Rapids,” says Dr. Hajj. “There are a few follow-up appointments where we recheck placement and see if the enlarged side decreases but it is a fairly simple procedure, which has good long-term results for patients and improves their quality of life.” 


“I had virtually no restrictions after the procedure,” says Kirchhoff. “I remember waking up and feeling great. I have always been very active — running, biking and lifting weights. I realize now I must have compensated with deep breaths over the years when I exercised. Since I had the procedure I know what it feels like to breathe easier. I could have gone another 10 to 20 years without symptoms but by then there would have been irreversible damage to my heart and lungs.” 

Kirchhoff is now looking ahead to celebrating her 50th birthday later this year and thanks to the ASD procedure she now has peace of mind as she looks to the future. 

“I am a strong believer in preventative care,” says Kirchhoff. “If you can have tests to identify or prevent issues — do it. Don’t wait. I believe Heart Check is the best money I ever spent. It never hurts to check because it might save your life.” 

Determine Your Heart Health

UnityPoint Health hospitals offer Heart Check in Cedar Rapids and Heart Scan in Dubuque, which helps individuals discover their risk for heart disease and HeartAware in Waterloo, which is a free seven-minute test. 

To learn more about Heart Check call: Cedar Rapids: (319) 369-8909 or Dubuque: (563) 557-2787 

You can also call to learn more about UnityPoint Health Heart Services:Cedar Rapids: (319) 364-7101