RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Many expectant moms brush off being tired and out of breath as just another part of pregnancy. For as many as one in a thousand women, though, it is a sign of a much more serious problem.
The treadmill is on at the Atlee Station Family YMCA, and Elisa Douglas is already a few minutes into her workout. With each step she takes, Douglas is defying what was at first the impossible.
“It was nine days later, and I woke up and basically couldn’t catch my breath. That was it,” Douglas remembers what happened shortly after she delivered her fourth daughter Edith Ann.
“It felt different from my first three,” she says describing her pregnancy, a time when she often could not catch her breath.
It was a symptom of Postpartum Cardiomyopathy. PPCM is congestive heart failure that happens soon after having a baby. Many of the signs can show up long before labor: fatigue, coughing, swelling, chest pain and heart palpitations. Why it strikes some women and not others remains a question, however, because research has found heart disease risk factors do not apply to PPCM.
“I remember thinking ‘How can this be happening to me? And I really just want to get home and be with my babies and what’s going on?”
Douglas was 32-years-old at the time and had never even heard of PPCM. Her blood pressure and heart rate were sky high, and she had three liters of fluid removed from around her heart and lungs.
Douglas began a low-sodium diet and medications to treat the PPCM, but she lived in fear as she cared for her children. “I was scared to run with them. I was kinda nervous about lifting them and carrying them down the stairs. I was really kinda scared to exert myself.”
Then she got the news that the drugs and diet were not working; Douglas would likely need a defibrillator. That’s when she took her health into her own hands.
“I started to get angry and determined,” Douglas explains. What followed was an effort to walk every day. She did it for ten minutes at a time at first, but then eventually ran. After a couple months, her heart was so much stronger that a defibrillator was out of the question.
“You really have to be intentional about changing your diet and getting that exercise. There’s always room for it, there’s always time for it.”
Thanks to that diet, exercise and medicine she is still taking, Douglas has been able to regain about 40% of her heart function so far. She has run several races and is training for this year’s Richmond Marathon. She is healthier now but remembers how she was out of breath during her pregnancy and let it slide. She has this advice to other expectant moms. “Really trust your instinct. If there is something that is telling you, it just doesn’t feel right then say it and keep saying it until you’re heard.”
8News is taking the lead on Heart Month, including PPCM awareness. Some studies have found half of women who get it will fully recover. Twenty-five percent can stabilize their heart rates with medication, while the other 25 percent progress to severe heart failure. There are tests that can detect PPCM, so if you are pregnant and have any of the symptoms, contact your doctor.