Hope for a Mother's Heart
My story starts four months into my pregnancy when I made the first of three emergency trips to the hospital. All of our trips began with what appeared to be benign symptoms: a nosebleed that wouldn’t clot, a cough thought to be pneumonia, and severe headaches. But at each trip, the physicians were more concerned with my blood pressure. Unfortunately, each physician I dealt with only tested me for pre-eclampsia. Given my age, 28, and no history of a heart condition, none of the healthcare professionals even considered heart disease. I complained of shortness of breath, significant fatigue, headaches, body swelling, erratic weight gain (for example, in one week I gained five pounds). All of these symptoms were casually chalked up to be normal pregnancy symptoms by my OB.
My first week home was anything but typical. I was still extremely bloated, having a hard time breathing and just couldn’t walk more than 50 feet without feeling exhausted. Just one week after being discharged from delivery, I was back in the ER. But this time a cardiologist immediately made the diagnosis: Peripartum Cardiomyopathy – a rare pregnancy-induced congestive heart failure that affects approximately 1 in 4,000 pregnancies. An ultrasound of my heart would show my ejection fraction (EF), a measure of how healthy the heart is pumping blood, was at 35-40. A healthy heart would have an EF of 60-70. Finally, all of the symptoms began to make sense to me. It was heartbreaking to not be able to enjoy my little peanut, but mending my heart, so that one day I could be there for her, was my top priority. I was put on a regimen of heart meds and an altered diet to begin strengthening my heart.
A few days later, I was joyfully reunited at home with Gianna and my husband. Unfortunately, I was still feeling ill and my symptoms hadn’t improved. My husband felt something wasn’t quite right, so he made a call to my cardiologist. Luckily, we had a nurse practitioner that listened to us and got us a same-day CT scan. A few short hours later, I ended up back in the ER, this time with a blood clot in my lungs. I spent another heartbreaking week in the hospital.
I was discharged and was on the road to recovery. Every week I strengthened. My heart meds and healthier, salt-free eating habits gradually improved my heart function. Slowly I began to walk – first measuring distance in feet, then by city blocks, and eventually walking up to 2 miles a day. By six months my heart’s EF was back into the 60s, and within 18 months I was completely off my meds – I was fully recovered!
Out of tragedy comes my desire to share my story – to help others understand that they should always listen to their bodies, challenge your doctors, and be an advocate for one’s own healthcare. In 2011 I became focused on participating in the AHA Heart Walk. I wanted to turn a negative into a positive, and what better way of showing my turnaround than being able to walk a 5K when a year ago I couldn’t walk five feet. We raised over $3,000 and I was honored as an AHA Top Walker.
Today, I still carry forward many of those habits that led to my recovery – including giving my husband the stink-eye if he even dares salt his food. I was blessed with a supportive family, but most of all, a cardiologist and nurse practitioner who listened to me and saved my life.