by Alanna Coogan, PHA Design & Publications Associate

“If you graduate from this high school, you can work for us.” That was the promise made to 50 New Jersey high school girls in 1954 – my grandmother was one of them. Besides a diploma from the Holy Family Academy and a typing test, this New York City bank also asked the girls to pass a simple health exam. And that was how, at age 17, my grandmother found out she had a heart murmur (later diagnosed as atrial fibrillation).

Patricia Coogan didn’t think much about the heart murmur when she was young, she just continued on with her life. She moved to Washington, D.C., where she met and married a wonderful man, Michael Coogan, and had four daughters and later four grandchildren. She worked various jobs and especially enjoyed accompanying her diplomat husband overseas where they lived in France and Turkey and traveled extensively. She lived with the heart murmur for the 64 years following her diagnosis, eventually taking medication for atrial fibrillation and routinely visiting a cardiologist. It wasn’t until this February at the age of 81 that a funny little coincidence changed her diagnosis.

I had never heard of pulmonary hypertension (PH) before I started working at PHA. Before my interview, I was nervous that my lack of medical knowledge would hinder my chances of getting the job. So, I turned to my faithful companion (coffee), opened the internet browser on my laptop, and tried to cram as much information about PH into my brain as possible.

Fortunately, I got the job. It was the week of my birthday, and it felt like all the pieces of my life were falling into place. And then on my birthday, a surprising phone call came from my grandmother. Her cardiologist had been doing extra tests every five years and this time, he had discovered something unusual and sent my grandmother to a PH specialist. After a chest x-ray and various other tests, she was diagnosed with PH.

I couldn’t believe that a disease I had only heard of a week ago had suddenly become part of our lives in such a personal way. Neither of us had heard of PH before I applied to PHA, and we couldn’t believe this crazy, but unfortunate, coincidence. What are the chances she would get diagnosed the very week I was set to start my new job? How different would I have felt if she had been diagnosed earlier, before I had learned of this disease and its consequences? Why had fate decided to throw this rare disease into both of our lives at the same time?

It wasn’t until I actually started my job at PHA that I decided there was a reason to the timing. Working on projects for PHA was different than working on projects at my previous jobs. I now had a deep tie — a connection — to this organization and what it stands for. I started to realize that everything I did at PHA — every resource I created and every publication I distributed — was directly or indirectly helping my own grandmother.

Every day at work, I greedily absorb any information on PH that I can and pass it along to her. I send her articles that we publish and I even signed her up for PHANews, our weekly e-newsletter. In September, I created a fundraising team and joined the PHPN Networking Fun Walk. Within two weeks, I had reached my fundraising goal. The money goes towards patient scholarships to PHA’s 2018 Conference – towards people like my grandmother.

Though it’s a sad connection, I’m nevertheless thankful for the extra meaning that’s been added to my work. Every late night at the office and every last minute project added to my plate are not burdens, but ways to help my grandmother. With every piece I design, I hope that my artwork reaches a new person and we achieve more awareness of this rare disease. I’m committed to PHA and to doing what I can to help find a cure.  I feel lucky to have something worth fighting for.

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