Aditi Kalla, MD, wearing a stethoscope
Einstein Untold: Unsung Heroes and Unknown Stories

Doctor’s Own Stethoscope Told Her She Had a Heart Problem

By on 01/14/2019

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One in an ongoing series

Aditi Kalla, MD, knew exactly why she was becoming tired and breathless when she walked up three flights of stairs to her apartment: she’d become a hypochondriac.

It was true that she had a mild case of asthma and was out of shape. But she also knew that young doctors were vulnerable to imaginary ailments; she’d applied for a cardiology fellowship at Einstein Healthcare Network, and now she had heart disease symptoms. She was too embarrassed to ask any of her colleagues to examine her. “I didn’t want people to think I was being crazy and imagining symptoms,” she said.

But the breathlessness and fatigue persisted. So one evening, while she was home alone, Dr. Kalla used her stethoscope to listen to her own heart. She heard the swoosh of a murmur. And that’s not all.

“The second heart sound was split, which usually indicates the right side of the heart is enlarged or it’s not pumping at the right time,” she said. Indeed, it was the sound of someone with an atrial septal defect – a hole between the top two chambers of the heart.

Or was it? “I felt like a complete hypochondriac,” she said. “I knew everyone was going to paint me as a drama queen.”

She asked a doctor friend to listen to her heart. He heard what she heard. Then she asked another friend to quietly do an ultrasound. The test showed the right side of her heart was enlarged. Soon, Dr. Kalla’s self-diagnosis was confirmed by a cardiologist.

“It was a very bittersweet moment,” she said. “I realized I had a huge hole in my heart – but at the same time, yes, I’m not crazy.”

Dr. Kalla underwent a minimally invasive procedure to close the hole in her heart and now takes medication to treat a subsequent heart rhythm disorder.

Dr. Kalla was born in London and moved to the United States in 1994. She was raised by two physicians – Mom was a psychiatrist and Dad an anesthesiologist – and was drawn to medicine by the compassion of the doctors who cared for her parents when they were ill.

She attended medical school at the Medical College of Georgia and completed her internal medicine residency at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. After a year of practicing emergency medicine at the VA Hospital in Birmingham, Ala., she’s now a cardiology fellow and researcher at Einstein. Dr. Kalla’s study linking marijuana use to increased risk of stroke and heart failure has received international attention.

The message of Dr. Kalla’s experience is clear: better to be designated a hypochondriac than to overlook a medical problem. Most of us can’t self-diagnose our ailments, so don’t ignore symptoms; get thee to an MD.

Dr. Kalla said her experience has deepened her empathy for patients. Once you’re on the other side of the table, she said – or, in her case, once you’re on both sides of the stethoscope – “it’s a complete game changer.”

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