UVA Health System Blog

Stories about the patients, staff and services of UVA


Maternity Monday: Planning a Pregnancy

On March 2, 2015 | At 9:00 am

You’ve found the right job, you’ve got the right guy, you feel those maternal instincts kicking in. You want to get pregnant. It’s the natural next step, right? Although we realize that sometimes pregnancies just happen without any planning, learning the best practices to plan your pregnancy is helpful for any woman who is sexually active. Not only will you be at your best, but it will help your unborn baby be as healthy as he or she can be, too.

Stories about preconception, pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum

Join us as we journey through preconception, pregnancy, childbirth and beyond in a series we call Maternity Monday.

Having a baby is a personal decision that should be discussed with your partner. Only you will know when you are truly ready in regards to your professional life, your relationship and your financial situation. Your doctor can help you plan a pregnancy in regards to your health and expectations. If you think the right time has arrived for you to get pregnant, we are ready to help prepare you for your journey to motherhood.

Taking All of the Right Steps for a Healthy Pregnancy

When you and your partner decide it’s time to start trying to get pregnant, you should begin taking extra care of yourself. Taking the right steps toward a healthy lifestyle not only helps you get pregnant, but also will protect your baby in the critical first weeks when you may not realize you are pregnant. During this time you should:

  • Avoid smoking or drinking alcohol due to the harmful effects it may have on an undeveloped fetus.
  • Be at a healthy weight; being underweight or overweight may cause complications in your pregnancy going forward.\
  • Increase your intake of folic acid. Your body and the fetus need extra folic acid for a number of reasons. Folic acid helps to prevent spinal cord injuries, cleft lip, cleft palate and types of heart defects on baby. Your body needs the folic acid in order to make red blood cells and prevent anemia. It also helps to produce and repair DNA, which helps to promote rapid cell growth in your developing baby.
When planning a pregnancy be sure that you are at your best. Take Folic Acid, exercise, and rid your body of toxins.

When planning a pregnancy be sure that you are at your best. Take Folic Acid, exercise, and rid your body of toxins.

The Center of Disease Control (CDC) suggests that all women of child-bearing age take 400 mcg of folic acid each day, which you can buy at many grocery stores and pharmacies. You can also find foods high in folic acid like:

  • Dark leafy greens
  • Asparagus
  • Citrus fruits
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Avocado

UVA pediatrician Ina Stephens, MD, also suggests an organic, toxin-free diet. “It’s never too early to start eating right and changing your lifestyle,” she says. “It’s as important to take care of yourself before you get pregnant as it is when you find out you are carrying a baby.”

“Prenatal exposure is still a mystery,” Stephens says. “Any changes to eat right and exercise and remove toxins from your life will help.”

Birth Control Myths

When you stop taking birth control, you may wonder how long it will take to get completely out of your system. Each woman is different, and each birth control method is different, too.

According to Stephens, birth control medication leaves your body fairly quickly. “That’s why you take a daily pill,” she explains. “When you miss a pill, your body doesn’t get those hormones.”

However, since your menstrual cycle lasts several weeks, you will probably need to stop taking birth control pills several days before you can get pregnant. Also remember, birth control pills are not 100 percent preventative, so there is still a slight chance to become pregnant while taking them.

What to Know About Your Family History

Your family health history will play a role in your child’s life and there are things you that you and your OB/GYN  should discuss and consider before your baby is born.

If your parents or grandparents suffer from diabetes, heart disease, hypertension or a number of other illnesses, be sure to mention that to your OB/GYN. You may be more likely to develop complications during pregnancy. However, these diseases can be treated and managed during pregnancy.

Talk to your doctor about genetic diseases that could affect your baby such as sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis and many heart conditions.

There’s a lot to know and a lot to think about when planning a pregnancy, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. The most important thing to remember is that your baby will need you to be at your very best in order to grow into a healthy human. Those first few days and weeks of pregnancy are very important, so starting a healthy routine before you know you’re pregnant is your best bet!


Maternity Monday: A Journey Through Preconception, Pregnancy, Childbirth and Postpartum

On | At 8:07 am

“Should I take prenatal vitamins before conception?”

Stories about preconception, pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum

Join us as we journey through preconception, pregnancy, childbirth and beyond in a series we call Maternity Monday.

“Why doesn’t anyone talk about miscarriage?”

“Does the baby really need all this stuff?”

We’ll be answering these questions and more every Monday for the next few months. Follow our Maternity Monday series for all you need to know about:


First Trimester

  • Prenatal vitamins and common questions
  • The meaning of miscarriage
  • High-risk pregnancies
  • Common and less common conditions in pregnancy
  • Prenatal screening/genetic counseling for birth defects

Second Trimester

  • Gestational diabetes
  • Exercising while pregnant
  • Twins, triplets and other multiples

Third Trimester

  • Creating and choosing a birth plan
  • Your partner’s role
  • Breastfeeding 101
  • The best shower gifts

 After the Baby Comes

  • What to expect in the first month
  • Helping older siblings adjust
  • Postpartum depression
  • Sleeping tips for mom and baby
  • Unusual health issues

Don’t miss a post! Sign up to receive email updates.


Heart Month 2015: Heart Attack Prevention and Chocolate [VIDEO]

On February 27, 2015 | At 3:05 pm

A photo booth, lots of laughs, and of course, chocolate. This was Heart Month at UVA.

Club Red, the Heart & Vascular Center’s heart-health initiative for women:

  • Set up a photo booth on Wear Red Day in the hospital lobby where employees and visitors could get decked out in feather boas and show off their red outfits.
  • Attended Quadruplicity, an all-women’s conference in Charlottesville. Congratulations to Health System employee Angela Taylor, who received an award for her contributions at work and to the community!
  • Delivered heart-healthy dark chocolate to employees.

Plus, we learned more about heart attack prevention:

Watch us celebrate!

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Cholesterol: The Good, the Bad, & the Balance

On February 25, 2015 | At 9:16 am
Running shoes in my office desk

Running shoes in my office desk: Walking is one way I’m beating my high cholesterol.

I’ve always had high cholesterol. But I’ve never worried about it. Why?

  • My mother told me it was genetic – “Grandma had high cholesterol, and she lived to age 93!”
  • My good cholesterol has always been the really high part – so doctors have never had a problem with my final number.
  • I’m an active, healthy person: I’ve always exercised regularly and eaten my vegetables.
  • Also, I was a vegetarian for several years. Surely that means something?

So everything was fine…

…until a couple months ago, when my new doctor at UVA, Allison Lyons, MD, reviewed my numbers and put up a red flag.

The Red Flag of Bad Cholesterol

She emailed me (how cool is it that my doctor and I email back and forth when I have questions?) saying:

Your HDL (good cholesterol) is great but your bad cholesterol (LDL) is a little higher than I would like. My goal would be <130 for you. How much do you eat in terms of cheese, red meat, dairy, sweets, etc.? I would like to control it with some changes in diet first, and we can then recheck in one year.

I balked. Me? Have a health issue? But considering our family had followed the Paleo diet for a while, so that we still tend to avoid carbs and rely heavily on meat, and also I’d fallen off my running routine, maybe this was a sign that I did need to make some changes. I asked Lyons what she recommended I do. Her reply:

I would try to cut back on red meat (only having once per week). I would also try to walk for 30-40 minutes per day. Both of those things together should help.

Oh dear. This prescription sounds fairly simple, but for me, this seemed impossible. A rush of resistance flooded my brain, as I thought of all the reasons I absolutely would flunk my doctor’s charge.

The Barriers to Balance

  • I’m not that big a fan of chicken. My kids would not want it every night.
  • I only like fresh fish. Which is hard to get and expensive.
  • Pork is red meat, and it’s my favorite.
  • I don’t have time to walk for 40 minutes EVERY DAY!
    • Mornings are out, because I can’t wake up early enough in the winter (not to mention it’s cold!).
    • My lunchtime is when I meet with friends I can’t see otherwise.
    • After work is when I’m spending time with my kids, helping with homework and getting them fed and bathed and put to bed.
    • And after that, I’m exhausted, it’s dark, and it’s time to spend with my partner.

Cholesterol, Not All Bad 

What is cholesterol, exactly?

Believe it or not, cholesterol is not the evil trespasser in your blood whom you should vow to destroy at all costs. In fact:

  • You need it. As Lyons told me, “Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is present in everyone’s blood and is necessary for your body to function.”
  • You make it. Also, you don’t just get cholesterol from meat, dairy and eggs. Your own liver produces cholesterol, all on its own.

The kicker? The liver is an overachiever. Lyons says, “When you eat a diet that is high in cholesterol, your liver tends to make more cholesterol as well.”

Good thing the U.S. government decided to stop warning us about cholesterol recently.

Cholesterol, Not All Good

So, why worry about cholesterol, if your own body makes it? As with most things in life, the issue boils down to balance.

There’s two types of cholesterol:

  • LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, is the culprit responsible for blockages and deposits.
  • HDL, the “good” cholesterol, actually tries to eat up and remove LDL cholesterol.

“When you have too much cholesterol in your body, it starts to deposit in your blood vessels, like dirt in a pipe. When it sits on the surface of the blood vessels for a long time, it becomes calcified and hardens.” The result?

  • Blockages that clog the pipe, slowing blood flow, causing heart disease and peripheral artery disease
  • Deposits or plaques that weaken, flake off and get lodge in arteries, causing heart attacks and strokes

Your cholesterol numbers help doctors determine if you’re in the right balance of good and bad.

The best-case scenario: Bad cholesterol under 100, good over 50, and the total number less than 200.

My numbers:

Total Cholesterol: 250
LDL: 159
HDL: 74

I felt doomed.

Making Hard Heart Changes

But I couldn’t stop thinking about my dad. His was a number even worse than my cholesterol. He was only 52 when he suddenly, with no warning, dropped dead of a heart attack. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. And I just can’t imagine doing that to my kids.

So, after the winter holidays, I did what a lot of people do and made some New Year’s Resolutions, including lowering my cholesterol. I made this goal a priority – to myself, to my partner, to my kids, to my friends.

And the impossible became possible.

Finding Time to Exercise

I started walking 30-40 at lunch every day at work. This actually happens to be a refreshing break, even when it’s cold. My mind is cleared for the rest of the day, I get some fresh air and light and some personal time. I look forward to this. I eat at my desk. I limit friend-lunches to once a week, even if that means pushing people out a while.

And if I miss a day walking, I have found other ways to exercise at home that aren’t too disruptive to my kid time: either having a half-hour dance party with the kids or doing a free, half-hour workout video on grokker.com. On the weekends, I walk the dog (who needs to lose weight).

Food Fix

This actually wasn’t as hard as I had anticipated.

  • I found out pork (red meat? White meat?) was allowed.
  • I now stop for fish on my way home one night a week. I get the fast-cooking kind that doesn’t take a lot of time and effort.
  • We use ground turkey instead of ground beef.
  • I keep my vegetable portions larger than everything else on my plate.
  • I drink almond or coconut milk and mostly avoid cheese and other dairy, though I do eat a yogurt at lunch every day.

Of course, I have to wait until October to see if these changes have had the desired effect. But I will check in then and let you know!

Find Out More About Cholesterol

Want to know more about your cholesterol and getting heart-healthy? Check out the articles and recipes at Club Red.


Podcast Tuesday: Back Pain and Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery [AUDIO]

On February 24, 2015 | At 10:37 am

Filed under : Neurosciences,Orthopedics,Podcast Tuesday | By
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Spring Vim & Vigor: Nursing Home Alternatives & Tips for Seniors

On February 20, 2015 | At 8:55 am

The Spring 2015 issue of our family health magazine, Vim & Vigor, focuses on staying healthy and happy as we age.

A nursing home alternative helps adults like Eliza Anderson

A Central Virginia program provides medical and social resources so Eliza Anderson (left) and other older adults can stay in their own homes.

Read about:

  • A Charlottesville program that helps seniors stay in their own homes instead of moving to nursing homes.
  • One of the world’s first children to have open-heart surgery — he’s now in his 60s and works out three times a week while waiting for a heart transplant.
  • A 74-year-old with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare type of blood cancer. A clinical trial at UVA has given him more time and hope. (You can also watch him tell his lymphoma story.)

Plus, 80-year-old “Philomena” star Judi Dench shares her macular degeneration story and why she thinks the word “retire” is rude.

Read Vim & Vigor now and enter a contest to win free food.


Podcast Tuesday: Genetic Testing for Heart Disease [AUDIO]

On February 17, 2015 | At 9:23 am

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Chiari Malformation: Getting Back on the Horse

On February 12, 2015 | At 9:25 am

In May 2014, Heather — a 20-year-old biological systems engineering student at Virginia Tech — broke her foot while walking in a field.

Heather on her horse after the chiari malformation surgery.

A dedicated horse rider, Heather found the incident unsettling. “I’ve never been the most graceful person but to break it just walking? That was a little weird.”

She didn’t know it then, but her instincts were correct; this was the first sign of something very serious.

Things got worse. That summer, during an internship in Georgia, symptoms showed up: Heather was throwing up, feeling tired and terrible and having neck pain. Her eyes, too, started failing her; she had double vision, lost her peripheral vision and weakening depth perception.

Back at school, Heather visited various doctors. Their diagnoses included stress, vertigo, ear infection, not an ear infection, all something different, and it was all very discouraging. “The doctors were giving me all these diagnoses and none of them really felt right to me.”

Finally, she got an MRI.

Heather was eating lunch in the loud cafeteria when the doctor called her with the results. “Oh my gosh, he’s going to tell me something terrible,” she thought. The doctor spoke slowly and told her what she had: a Chiari malformation.

“I was a little bit scared but when I looked it up and researched it a bit I just felt relieved,” Heather says. “I researched Chiari malformation and it fit my symptoms perfectly —  at that point I was just ready to feel better, living life normally.” And get back to riding her horse.

Liu at UVA: An Expert Nearby

Luckily for Heather, her doctor in Blacksburg knew Kenneth Liu, MD, personally. A UVA neurosurgeon, Liu has unrivalled expertise in handling conditions like these. Her doctor emailed Liu right there in the office.

Liu was happy to help, not only because he enjoys helping others, and the condition is a huge research interest of his but because, he told Heather, he himself has asymptomatic Chiari malformation.“His personal connection with the condition was very helpful in his care for me.”

Liu describes Chiari malformation like this: “At the bottom of your skull is a bony hole where your spinal cord comes out. Parts of the brain (cerebellum) can sneak down the hole and cause crowding and create pressure.” Chiari malformations can be mild and subtle and, since it’s a congenital condition, one you’re born with, people can get used to the symptoms.”

Heather’s case, on the other hand, “was severe. Painful compression on her spinal cord caused balance, coordination, focusing problems, double vision. People would describe her as clumsy. It seemed like things got worse when six months ago she started vomiting for no reason.”

How Do You Treat Chiari Malformation?

“The way you fix it is to make the hole bigger,” Liu explains. “This relieves the pressure and reduces the crowding.”

This decompression involved removing some bone and enlarging the sac that holds the brain and spinal fluid by cutting and sewing in a graft (made from processed pig intestines). The graft is watertight, acting as a scaffold for her cells to grow into. “It grossed me out a little bit,” Heather says, “I was still relieved the whole time, but I was definitely scared.” The idea of being asleep and not having control over her body or knowing what was happening to her during surgery was scary.

And she was worried about having to shave her head for the operation. She worried so much her friends at Virginia Tech said they would show their support by shaving their heads, too, however much Heather had to have shaved.

Liu joked with Heather, “I could really mess with them then!”

That is one of the many things Heather appreciates about Liu — his good humor, as well as his responsiveness, always being available and reassuring. The nurses, too, were great, bringing Heather milkshakes, giving her painless shots, chatting with her and keeping her from getting bored.

“I did feel very safe with Dr. Liu and all the nurses I talked to; they were all reassuring and sympathetic,” Heather says.

And somehow, Liu ended up cutting without touching Heather’s hair line, to her relief. “I have no idea how he did it, but he did!”

Heather and Dr. Liu

Despite having neurosurgery in early November, Heather was miraculously on target to successfully complete her fall semester before the 2015 spring semester began.

Liu collaborated with Edward Oldfield, MD, and John Jane, Sr., MD, who are world experts in the topic, he explains. “We just published an article about using the intraoperative MRI to look at how different stages of surgery affect the flow of spinal fluid. Heather’s results were good, and immediately after surgery she felt better.”

Heather agrees. “Immediately my hand eye coordination was better, I was more secure on my feet and my double vision drastically improved.”

The surgery took place Thursday morning; Heather left the hospital Sunday afternoon. By then, she was able to walk up and down stairs, with help; one week later she could shower without help.

By December 12, her last appointment with Liu, he lifted the restrictions on her physical activity. Though she will still need six months to make a complete recovery, Heather is able to ride her horse again.

Do You Have Symptoms?

Learn more about Chiari malformation at the UVA Neurosciences Center.

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Podcast Tuesday: Surgery Prep for Kids [AUDIO]

On February 10, 2015 | At 8:04 am

Filed under : Children's Hospital,Podcast Tuesday | By
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Join Us March 30 for the Film Premiere of “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies”

On February 9, 2015 | At 2:16 pm

Cancer-Film-sponsored-by-UVA-Cancer-CenterBased on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, the film, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” presented by legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, tells the complete story of cancer from its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the 20th century to cure, control and conquer the disease.

“Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” depicts the developments in understanding cancer at a time when we’re approaching a major transition in how we see the disease — as treatable and possibly curable, versus deadly.

The Significance of Cancer Research Today

“This high-profile documentary emphasizes the significance of cancer research today. UVA Cancer Center is sponsoring the event as a public service commitment to our community so that everyone can be educated about progress in cancer research and its impact on the disease,” says Cancer Center director Thomas P. Loughran, Jr., MD.

“In recent years we have learned much about how cancer originates and spreads. The research field is exploding with new knowledge, allowing us to develop drugs that target key factors responsible for keeping cancer cells alive. New drugs are being approved that work in ways we wouldn’t have imagined just a few years ago, drugs that are eliciting truly miraculous responses in patients who had failed all previous treatments.”

Join the Cancer Center on March 30 for a free, live screening of the film premiere, starting with a meet-and-greet with Cancer Center doctors and researchers who will discuss key initiatives in cancer care that are impacting patients today. The American Cancer Society will honor cancer survivors, there will be an interactive story wall where guests can share their stories about cancer and more.

When: March 30, 2015. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Film begins at 9 p.m.
Where: The Paramount Theater, 215 East Main Street, Charlottesville

The event is free, but you must order tickets in advance.

About UVA Cancer Center

The Cancer Center is accredited by the Commission on Cancer and is one of 68 National Cancer Institute (NCI) designated cancer centers in the U.S. for its work in cancer research, prevention, detection and treatment. We provide comprehensive, world-class cancer treatment in an environment of caring for patients across Virginia, led by doctors who have been honored by publications such as ”Best Doctors in America®” and “America’s Top Doctors®.”

To learn about research breakthroughs happening at the Cancer Center, come to a Cancer Education Series April 9 at The Paramount and visit our newsroom for recent articles and press releases.


This event is brought to you by UVA Cancer Center in partnership with WVPT Public Television, the American Cancer Society and The Paramount Theater.