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Randy Travis: What is Viral Cardiomyopathy? How is it Treated?

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Photo: Rick Diamond

Music fans across the nation were dismayed at the sad news that Grammy-winning country star Randy Travis became very ill and was admitted to a Texas hospital this week — with concern growing after a family member claimed he'd undergone heart surgery.

As it turns out, that statement was false. According to his publicist, Travis did not have heart surgery, but rather is being treated for viral cardiomyopathy — which involves a different type of procedure.

What's the difference? Here's a detailed breakdown of viral cardiomyopathy: Its definition, causes, treatments, and prognosis.

Let's start from scratch: According to Dr. Stephen Dyda, who is not Travis's physician but practices cardiology in suburban Boston, "cardiomyopathy" indicates a condition that impacts heart muscle cells, resulting in cell death and weakening of the heart.

"Viral cardiomyopathy is one of the more common causes of a weakening of the heart muscle, which is sometimes, but not always, associated with symptoms of congestive heart failure. This is usually an untoward consequence of a common upper respiratory tract virus," he notes.

The condition is not something to be taken lightly, hence Travis's "critical" status at the hospital. "Rarely, a more serious virus can cause a viral cardiomyopathy, and this can cause patients to become abruptly ill, decompensate rapidly, and occasionally die before seeking medical attention," Dyda explains.

On Tuesday, Travis's publicist released a statement saying that Travis did not actually have heart surgery (as widely reported), but rather "underwent placement of an Impella peripheral left ventricular assist device for stabilization prior to transferring hospitals."

Dyda explains that this is common. "Surgical procedures are used to support a failing heart to assume its pump function, and cardiac transplantation is used in selected cases as well. Occasionally, patients receive special pacemakers or implanted defibrillators to support their heart function or protect them against potential fatal heart rhythm disturbances. These are occasionally thought of as surgical procedures as well, but are less invasive."

On most fans' minds is the concern that Travis may not bounce back from his treatment. "From the limited information available to me, it certainly sounds as if he has a long road to recovery, and even at that, his prognosis seems to be uncertain at this time," Dyda agrees, adding that Travis could very well be in an extremely serious state.

"Not every patient with a viral cardiomyopathy goes on to develop symptoms, and there are some viruses which are much more dangerous to the heart than the typical upper respiratory tract infection type of virus. If this is what he had, he could be far sicker than the average patient with a viral cardiomyopathy."

Travis's sister-in-law stated on Tuesday that heart problems run in the family, with Travis's mom actually dying at a young age as a result. Is this where Travis's condition stems from? Dyda thinks this is unlikely. "Genetics do play a role in the development of a cardiomyopathy, but typically not in instances of a viral cardiomyopathy, which is typically acquired," he explains.

Dyda also thinks that Travis's well-documented recent problems with alcohol abuse are not going to help matters. "Significant and routine alcohol consumption serves as a poison to heart muscle cells, which leads to heart muscle cell death, weakening of the heart muscle, and occasionally symptoms of congestive heart failure," he says.

That said, the fact that Travis has recently pledged to clean up his act is considerably beneficial: "For some patients, the heart muscle has the ability to heal itself," Dyda explains, noting that anyone in Travis's current condition should completely refrain from alcohol consumption and follow an appropriate schedule of medications.

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