Young, pregnant – and a deadly heart condition

29 Jul

by Carolyn Thomas

Martha is one of those young women who believes she was born to have babies.  “I’ve always been a nurturing person  – and bossy to boot!” she laughs.  “And isn’t that what mothers are made of?”  So she and hubby Joseph were thrilled when, at the age of 26, she became pregnant with their first baby. 

“In the last month of my pregnancy, I began feeling bloated, tired, had trouble breathing and also had what seemed the worst flu of my life. I told my obstetrician about my symptoms, but she said that it was ‘normal’, that I was ‘over-reacting’, and to stop worrying. When a bad cough got worse and I just couldn’t sleep, I called my doctor and she told me to take some cough syrup, and to stop worrying.”

One evening, just two weeks before her due date, Martha had dinner  and later watched Desperate Housewives on TV.  Right afterwards, she noticed a ‘bloody show’ during a trip to the bathroom.  Alarmed, she headed to the hospital, where the unthinkable happened.  “When they hooked me up to the usual monitors, the nurse couldn’t find my daughter’s heartbeat.”

An ultrasound confirmed the devastating truth – her baby was dead. The obstetrician told her:

“I have nothing good to tell you. She’s gone. I don’t know how or why, but she’s gone. And what’s worse, you need to calm down because your own health is in danger now.”

With no time to grieve over the loss of their baby girl, Michelle, and critically ill herself, Martha spent the next two hours and one Code Blue in the O.R. before being finally stabilized.  “I woke up in the ICU, intubated, realizing that this hadn’t all been a horrible nightmare after all,” she says.

So what went wrong? Martha had developed a heart condition during her pregnancy called Peripartum Cardiomyopathy or PPCM.  Her doctors confirmed later that she had been minutes away from death.

Cardiomyopathy is an abnormality of the heart muscle (from the root words ‘cardio’ meaning heart, ‘myo’ (muscle), and ‘pathy’ (disease). The heart becomes enlarged and its pumping action severely reduced.  Cardiomyopathy can be viral or hereditary, or due to a number of complex factors affecting the body’s autoimmune system that are still being investigated by researchers.

But there is one form of cardiomyopathy that affects only women, as Martha tragically learned. Peripartum cardiomyopathy occurs in the last trimester of pregnancy or within a few months of giving birth. The heart muscle can’t contract forcefully enough to pump adequate amounts of blood for the needs of the body’s vital organs.

PPCM is rare, occurring in only about one in 4,000 pregnancies in North America (but as high as one in 300 pregnancies in Haiti, for example). About one third of PPCM patients are, like Martha, young women with their first pregnancy. About half of PPCM patients experience complete recovery of heart function, and some are even able to safely tolerate future pregnancies. Unfortunately, some women never recover, and go on to develop chronic congestive heart failure with a catastrophic mortality rate of 85%.

Symptoms of PPCM include:

  • difficulty breathing while lying flat
  • shortness of breath on exertion
  • pitting edema (swelling) especially in feet/andles
  • unusual fatigue
  • cough
  • frequent night-time urination
  • excessive weight gain during the last month of pregnancy (two to four or more pounds per week)
  • palpitations (sensation of racing heart rate, skipping beats, long pauses between beats, or fluttering),
  • chest pain

Martha, despite the unimaginable grief of losing her baby, is one of the lucky young PPCM survivors.  

“My heart healed in three months! After a year of medications, strict diet and exercise, and life-saving counselling therapy, I was able to begin ‘talking baby’ again. In March of 2009, my cardiologist and I decided it was time to get off my heart meds. In April, my follow-up echocardiogram showed that my heart function is still going strong!  No more birth control now, and today I had my last cardiologist’s appointment – until my first trimester after I become pregnant again!”

“My advice for all pregnant women and new moms now would be: follow your instincts and listen to your body! You are the only one who can feel what is going on inside you.  

“Don’t let any doctor tell you, without sufficient testing, that you’re overreacting. It’s just too high a price to pay.”

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Find out more about Peripartum Cardiomyopathy.

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NEWS UPDATE:  Martha and Joseph had their second baby, a healthy little boy, in September 2010!  Congratulations to all!


14 Responses to “Young, pregnant – and a deadly heart condition”

  1. Rannette C. Terry July 16, 2017 at 7:51 am #

    Wonderfully written… Thanks. I needed understanding of a miscarriage and I now understand I have to take it easy…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas July 16, 2017 at 9:08 am #

      Thanks for taking the time to comment here, Rannette. Best of luck to you…

      Like

  2. Jen December 23, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

    I was told that my back pain and cramping were Braxton Hicks contractions around my 24th week of pregnancy. One week later I delivered our daughter, 15 weeks prematurely. She weighed just over a pound – she survived and thankfully, is a healthy 22 year old today.

    I had a feeling that something was terribly wrong at the time, but could not articulate it to medical professionals. They said I was a nervous first-time pregnant woman, or stressed out etc, etc…

    The woman in this article is correct about speaking up. It could just save your life. (or someone else’s). I can’t imagine what she went through, not only losing her baby, but being critically ill herself.

    I was happy to read she went on to have a little boy and wish them all the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Samira August 12, 2014 at 8:20 pm #

    Martha – Congrats for having a baby! I was wondering if you could share what diet plan you followed in the first year of recovery?

    I was also induced and my baby was overdue by 2 weeks. I had normal vag delivery but was diagnosed with PPCM 7 days after the delivery. My email address is sr.ldni at gmail.com

    Like

  4. Diane August 23, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    I am the mother of a daughter who had ppcm. Am looking to find out how many ppcm survivors were induced and if they were induced more than once.

    Congratulations Martha on your recovery and new baby.

    Like

    • Keela Jones October 22, 2012 at 4:47 am #

      I have ppcm following the birth of my first child, I was induced four times over a period of a week and have often wondered if this was the trigger to my condition?
      Keela x

      Like

    • Keri February 20, 2013 at 6:27 am #

      I was induced a couple of times for preeclampsia but delivered via C-section and couple of days later was in ER for Post Partum Cardiomyopathy. My email is kcoletta at hotmail.com if u have any questions

      Like

    • Mary Fletcher Jones August 19, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

      I had peripartum cardiomyopathy and I was induced. Birth was difficult. Is there a connection with that?

      Like

      • Carolyn Thomas August 19, 2014 at 8:57 pm #

        Hello Mary – cannot give you a professional opinion other than to say generally that researchers believe that PPCM may possibly be due to hormonal abnormalities, malnutrition, inflammation or immune system responses during pregnancy – as opposed to the delivery itself. Here’s more on risk factors for PPCM.

        Like

  5. NewMum May 29, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    Wow, an unforgettable story – what a terrible shock for Martha and her family to lose a baby and then face such a sudden cardiac crisis. I’m glad to know that Babe #2 arrived safe and sound and mum is safe, too. May they both have many happy years together. Thanks for telling this story. Love your site!!

    Like

    • Carolyn Thomas May 29, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

      As a “new mum” yourself, I’m sure you can imagine just how devastating Martha’s experience must have actually been. Thanks for your comment here.

      Like

  6. Dr. Gordon Hoad, MD September 11, 2009 at 4:02 pm #

    Excellent information – thank you.

    Like

  7. Feef August 18, 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    great post, Thank You

    Like

  8. duertence August 9, 2009 at 2:28 pm #

    Thank you. This helped me in preparing my college assignment on little known pregnancy issues.

    Like

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