A year after having her first child, Erika Abbott received a diagnosis that shocked her doctors. At 29, the active, new mom considered herself in good health however, at night she found herself struggling to breathe. Initially doctors in the city where she was living at the time believed she had bronchitis, but after months of treatment her breathing had not improved. She also was having trouble sleeping.
Time for a Second Opinion
When she came home to Houston for Thanksgiving, her mother urged her to visit doctors at Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital to get a second opinion. “The first doctor I saw was a lung doctor, Dr. Sandeep Gupta, who checked out my heart in an ultrasound and he could tell it was inflamed and not beating as a normal heart should,” said Erika. “Dr. Gupta sent me to the clinic of cardiologist Dr. Manu Pillai, who told me my heart muscle was very weak, and that I have acute congestive heart failure (CHF). He immediately admitted me into the hospital.”
Tests confirmed she had CHF. An echocardiogram or test that visualizes the heart through ultrasound showed that Erika’s heart muscle was very weak and led doctors to diagnose her with CHF at age 29. “My heart ejection fraction was at about 5 to 10 percent and Dr. Pillai spotted a blood clot in my heart,” added Erika. The heart ejection fraction is the pumping strength of the heart. A normal ejection fraction is between 55 and 70 percent.
Immediately she thought of her young son, just weeks from his first birthday. “The initial diagnosis was terrifying because my son wasn’t even one yet,” said Erika.
Undergoing a Lifesaving Procedure
During her hospital stay, doctors placed her on blood thinners and under observation. One evening, she developed a tingling sensation and pain in her foot. Doctors evaluated and examined her heart and found a large blood clot inside the heart, blocking blood flow. Doctors needed to operate immediately to remove the blood clot and restore the blood flow.
Dr. Naveed Saqib, vascular surgeon at Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital, performed Erika’s lifesaving, minimally invasive surgery. Erika’s heart was unfortunately too weak for anesthesia so she was awake as Dr. Saqib talked her through the procedure. Dr. Saqib made a small incision below her knee, exposed her blood vessels and removed the blood clot.
Erika spent a month in the hospital including her son’s first birthday. Nurses at Memorial Hermann Southeast came together to throw her son a birthday party in the hospital so that Erika could share in the moment.
Following surgery, Erika had to wear a device called Life Vest for approximately six months until her ejection fraction improved. By wearing the Life Vest, it would send a lifesaving shock should her heart stop unexpectedly. “With medications her heart function actually normalized,” Dr. Pillai added.
Facing New Challenges with Her Second Pregnancy
Two years after her surgery, Erika and her husband found out they were expecting their second child. With the pregnancy, Erika had to temporarily stop several of her heart medications because some medications are not safe for the baby. As a high-risk pregnancy, she had to get monthly echocardiograms and remained under careful monitoring by Dr. Pillai.
“It was very risky for a second pregnancy because of the strain and stress it can place on the heart,” said Dr. Pillai. “Erika was under constant monitoring to ensure she and the baby were okay.” At 36 weeks, Erika was induced and delivered a healthy baby boy.
Doctors feel that her congestive heart failure was related to a syndrome called postpartum cardiomyopathy or CHF related to pregnancy. A family history also could have played a role in her diagnosis, with her grandmother and uncle both passing away from CHF. According to the American Heart Association, postpartum cardiomyopathy is rare in the United States and about 1,000 to 1,300 women develop the condition each year.
Erika has served as an advocate for heart health by speaking to other women about the importance of regular heart checkups and listening to your body. “It’s important as a woman to take care of yourself, not just for others but for yourself, and listen when your body has changed,” she added.
If you’re concerned about your heart health or the heart health of a loved one, schedule an appointment now with one of our affiliated cardiologists.