Creative solution

Med student produces Web series for kids with pulmonary hypertension

Sean Wyman, OMS II, also has the disease and noticed a lack of resources for child patients.


At age 18, Sean Wyman, OMS II, was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. Like many teens his age, he wasn’t quite sure. He knew he wanted to help people, and he found medicine intriguing.

Wyman’s path forward was interrupted in October 2002, just before his 19th birthday, when he was on a family vacation in Colorado. During the trip, Wyman felt short of breath and passed out twice in a 24-hour period.

“When I went to the emergency room, the nurse thought her pulse-ox machine was broken because it took my pulse and it was 210 beats per minute,” he says. “Over the course of about a week and a half they did every test known to man. Ultimately, they came up with pulmonary hypertension.”

Pulmonary hypertension (PH) is a rare disease in which the blood vessels going from the heart to the lungs narrow, restricting blood flow. It causes shortness of breath and can cause other symptoms such as blue-tinged lips and skin from lack of oxygen, swelling in the ankles and fainting, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The disease is most common in women and young adults. The American Lung Association estimates that roughly 1 in 100,000 to 1,000,000 people have pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a common type of PH. At advanced stages, some PAH patients need lung transplants while others experience heart failure or irregular heart rhythms.

Needless to say, the diagnosis turned Wyman’s life upside down. Clinicians told him he wouldn’t ever be able to work, play contact sports or go to school again.

“At the time, there were only two treatments that were approved for pulmonary hypertension,” he says. “One was a pill that they weren’t sure how effective it was going to be, especially as advanced as my case was. The other was intravenous.

“But over the last 12 years I’ve seen advancements in medicine. My quality of life has improved exponentially.”

Wyman’s early physicians were mistaken—new therapies allowed him to manage his PH so well that he was able to go back to work. At age 27, he set out to follow his dream of helping others by attending medical school, which led him to enroll at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in Pomona, California in 2012.

Filling a gap

Before enrolling in medical school, Wyman realized that he was in a unique position to help others who have PH. Many PH patients are children, and Wyman had noticed a dearth of resources tailored to them.

Wyman spoke to Phil Harding, an animator friend, about creating a short Web series on PH targeted to children. The Pulmonary Hypertension Association came on board as a sponsor of the project, and Wyman and Harding spent two years creating a series called Lips Painted Blue.

Named for the bluish lips that PH patients sometimes have, Lips Painted Blue consists of four short animated episodes, one of which features video testimonials from real PH patients. The series follows the diagnosis of Jeremy, a young boy who loves running and dreams of becoming a professional athlete. When he is diagnosed with PH, a physician explains to him what causes the disease and what it means for him. Jeremy learns that he will have to avoid running and other sports for a long time. But instead of becoming dejected, he decides to pursue coaching and starts with his younger brother, who is also a runner.

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At the end of the series, Jeremy creates a video blog about life with PH, and he hears from real-life patients who have also traded physical hobbies for other pursuits such as drawing and academics.

Lips Painted Blue does a great job of showing children that they can live a whole, happy life with PH, says Victor Tapson, MD, who explains that PH patients can’t partake in many of the activities they once enjoyed. They are challenged to channel their energy into less-physical pursuits such as coaching, reading or drawing.

Lips Painted Blue is a nice bullet point lesson about how you might need to shift your thinking, but you can still have a fulfilled life,” says Dr. Tapson, who directs the Venous Thromboembolism and Pulmonary Vascular Disease Research Program at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.

The Pulmonary Hypertension Association needed better resources for children, and Lips Painted Blue has helped fill that gap, says Rino Aldrighetti, the association’s president and CEO.

“You have to speak to any audience in its own language,” he says. “Using the cartoon format was really a smart idea that Sean had. Often we find ourselves talking to parents. But Lips Painted Blue opens a door for us to have direct conversations with kids in a way that benefits them.”

So far, the series has been well-received by patients, Wyman says.

“A lot of the kids who participated in Lips Painted Blue really enjoyed it,” he says. “And what I hear from them is, ‘I wish we would have had this when we got sick.’ I’ve also had adult patients contact me and tell me that they wish there was a Lips Painted Blue for adults.”

In the future, Wyman hopes to create a mobile app to house the Lips Painted Blue videos. He also wants to develop resources for teens and young adults with PH on maintaining relationships and jobs.

What clinicians should know

Wyman is doing a great job helping patients better understand PH, says Dr. Tapson, who notes that the average clinician could stand to learn more about the disease, too.

“For anyone training in medicine, if they want to know about pulmonary hypertension, they should at least know the five classes of pulmonary hypertension,” he says. “If you learn those five classes and a little bit about them, your knowledge base will have increased dramatically.”

Because the signs of PH are subtle, physicians often misdiagnose patients, Dr. Tapson notes.

“The symptoms get blamed on atypical asthma, or being overweight, or being anxious,” he says, adding that it can often take more than a year for patients to receive a PH diagnosis because their symptoms can be confused with those for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “You really have to pay close attention and make sure you listen to patients and consider pulmonary hypertension when they are short of breath.”

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