Brad Ashford: My four-year personal health journey

February 28, 2022 5:00 am

Former U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford of Omaha (Courtesy of U.S. House Office of Photography)

Recently a friend asked me to record my personal health journey. I was hesitant to do so until I realized it might help others seek the medical help they need.

I have always tried to be healthy — watched my weight, participated in sports like basketball and rugby from high school on, never smoked, and ran every day. I ran in marathons, not with the expectation to win but as a challenge to myself. I always kept a very active schedule, including extensive travel for both work and pleasure.

For my term in Congress, I traveled back and forth between Washington and Omaha almost weekly and traveled with congressional delegations to the Middle East and Europe as part of my position on the House Armed Services Committee. I did not experience any health problems as a result of all those activities.

In the summer of 2017, I started experiencing shortness of breath during my regular runs and a persistent cough. I made an appointment with my primary care physician at Methodist Physicians Clinic. My internist ordered a chest X-ray, which showed a small lesion on one of my lungs. That lesion ended up saving my life. It was old scar tissue, perhaps from a childhood illness, but it provided the indication that further scans should be done.

Blood thinners

Further diagnostic scans showed blood clots that were described a heavy load in both lungs. That started me on the journey to where I am today. We immediately started blood thinners and set upon a course of treatment. I saw a hematologist who was consulted for treatment recommendations, as well as for tests to determine if they could identify the cause of those blood clots.  The cause never was determined, which in my understanding is true for about 75% of people with blood clots.

The treatment was proceeding and was successful enough to begin busting and shrinking some of the clot load. I did not go back to running, but switched to walking and biking. I was feeling and doing well enough to go on multiple-day bike trips and get back to working a full schedule.

In April 2019, the effects of the blood clots became emergent. I ended up as an inpatient at Nebraska Medicine for about a week. The blood clots had led to pulmonary hypertension which, in turn, produced right side heart damage. I was seriously ill. My heart was out of rhythm, with atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation. It was affecting my other organs, as well. They performed a cardioversion, which worked to shock my heart into normal rhythm. I also started a new regimen of drugs to address the pulmonary hypertension as well as the heart problems.

The new regimen worked for a while. In addition to medication, I went on a low-sodium diet and shed the extra fluids in my body that were making my organs have to work too hard. I was thin but felt well enough to again lead a normal life.

Strength training helped

In October 2021, my family and I went to Disney World for a long weekend, and that is when I first seriously experienced any significant weakness on only one side of my body. I immediately went in to see my cardiologist at Nebraska Medicine, who leads the team taking care of my heart and lung problems.

We determined that one of the heart medications I was taking was probably not the best medication for me, and we halved the dosage. In addition, I began physical strength training sessions with a trainer who has extensive experience working with heart patients. The combination of the medication adjustment and training was working. I was consistently improving my pulmonary function, rarely if ever getting out of breath. I concentrated on bringing back the strength in my legs.

I continued long walks outside with my old running partner through Christmas and noticed some issues with weakness in my legs when I left the concrete path and got onto uneven ground. My wife, Ann, and I went to Charleston, South Carolina, in the middle of January for a few days to seek some warmth. Since beginning blood thinners, I had been unable to tolerate the cold. Charleston ended up being chillier than normal, and I started listing to one side again. The weakness was back and made it difficult to walk any distance. I had to lean heavily on Ann when moving around and was very unsteady. We arrived back home in Omaha on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday I was at the doctor’s office. They did a CT scan of my head and found nothing. (Feel free to point out the double meaning of that statement.)

After an EKG, it was determined my heart was in atrial flutter, and my heart rate was very low.  We scheduled another cardioversion to get my heart back in regular rhythm and stopped one of my heart medications, as its side effects include possible weakness in the limbs.

Fell through glass door

I was still able to walk on my own, a little unsteady with some weakness in my limbs, but I asked for and got medical clearance to go to California with my daughter for a few days beginning on the upcoming Sunday, Jan. 23. I was still seeking the warmth since I was constantly cold.

The first night Ellie and I were in Palm Springs, I was unsteady getting up after dinner. There was a threshold in the floor that I missed, and I ended up falling through a glass door. No visible signs of injury but the paramedics were called, and they took me to the local emergency room to monitor for signs of bleeding on the brain, since I was on blood thinners. At the Palm Springs hospital, they did another CT scan of my brain, and again, nothing was found to identify a problem. I was released, used a cane for the rest of my time in California, and arrived back in Omaha on Jan. 27. I was getting progressively weaker, and so the next day, I was checked into the hospital to move up my cardioversion.

During my stay at Nebraska Medicine, I also underwent a right-side heart catheterization, which identified more serious issues with my pulmonary hypertension and perfusion. Long story short, my extremities were not getting enough oxygen. After the cardioversion, I was released to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Omaha to build back my strength to a point where I could return home with a walker. We considered that the issues with weakness, especially those affecting one side of my body more than the other, might be neurological in nature. But my pulmonary hypertension and cardiac issues, on top of the two negative CT brain scans during a one-week period, pushed that idea to the side.

At Madonna, I made some progress using a walker — until I didn’t. On Monday, Feb. 14, Madonna ordered another CT scan of my brain, and this time something showed up: a lesion or abnormality that had not been visible two weeks prior. We were able to find an inpatient bed at Nebraska Medicine, and I was transferred there that night.

Glioblastoma diagnosed

The MRI of my brain showed clearly that there was a mass in my brain. I was checked for other signs of cancer throughout my body and, thankfully, no others appeared.  On Wednesday, Feb. 16, I had a pacemaker put in to get my heart to beat fast enough. And on Friday, Feb. 18, I had a biopsy of the lesion in my brain. We had hoped it would be an abscess caused by an infection, but it is a glioblastoma. As of this writing, we are waiting for our appointment on Monday to tell us exactly what type of tumor it is and what the course will be to treat and manage this disease.

I share this because I hope some will benefit from the lessons I have learned:

  • Make sure you have a primary care physician who knows you and your medical history.
  • Don’t be too proud to call your doctor and describe what you are experiencing. You don’t want to have to call 911.
  • Be your own health advocate. You know your body better than anyone and know when something isn’t right.
  • When people offer to help, take it. Our community is incredibly generous, and every outreach is greatly appreciated.
  • The health care resources in this city are unparalleled. I personally am part of the Nebraska Medicine system and spent time at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Omaha, and both deliver on their health care promises.

There are no words to describe the commitment of our health care professionals, from the caregivers to the environmental service workers and everyone else. They have been through so much these last couple of years and continue to work selflessly for the benefit of us all.

Finally, my health care journey is but a small part of my life story. I am strengthening myself to get back to work urging all of us to adopt a New Attitude. We must come together; we must care for one another; and we must actually accomplish that which we need to do to move us forward.

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Brad Ashford
Brad Ashford

Brad Ashford was a public servant and attorney. He served four terms in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Brad's later focus was on bringing a New Attitude to all involved in governance — to work together without regard to labels. He died April 19, 2022. His widow, Ann Ashford, continues to share some of Brad's essays with the Nebraska Examiner.