Stacy-Ann Walker was 35 weeks pregnant when she began experiencing extreme discomfort.
She had trouble lying on her back, she was winded after climbing a flight of stairs, and her legs and ankles were extremely swollen.
In a now-viral essay for Today, Walker says it was a spike in her blood pressure that prompted a visit to her obstetrician.
“I normally had low blood pressure and it had been steadily increasing throughout the pregnancy,” Walker says. “They were worried I had preeclampsia and sent me directly to the hospital for tests.”
With tests, doctors discovered that the baby was smaller than normal and had a weakened heart rate. Walker’s daughter, Ashley, was delivered by emergency C-section at two pounds, 12 ounces.
As Ashley rested in the neonatal intensive care unit, Walker’s health took a turn for the worse.
“Tests revealed I was in heart failure and there was fluid in my lungs,” she says. “I was stunned. I was healthy and active my entire life. I wasn’t even 30 yet. How could this be happening?”
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Walker was found to have rheumatic heart disease, which is permanent damage caused to a heart valve after a bout of rheumatic fever. Walker doesn’t recall having the fever, but she grew up in Jamaica, and she says it’s more common in developing nations.
After one year of close observation by a cardiologist, Walker had open heart surgery to repair the damaged valve. The surgery was successful, but the relief was brief. Just two years later, the valve again required repair and Walker had her second open-heart surgery.
Now, mom and seven-year-old Ashley are doing well, though Walker will need to take medication and follow a stringent diet and exercise regime for the rest of her life.
The 37-year-old currently volunteers for the American Heart Association, and she shares her story in hopes that it will help other women recognize the risk factors for heart disease.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, a woman dies of heart disease in Canada every 20 minutes.
Many forms of heart disease are asymptomatic, and they often don’t reveal themselves until pregnancy places increased demand on your heart.
“Pregnancy is a stress test for life,” says Dr. Wee-Shian Chan, the head of the obstetrical medicine department at the British Columbia Women’s Hospital and Health Centre.
“Life, (in this case), is other health conditions,” Chan says.
“Most of the time, when we get pregnant when we’re younger, we expect our body can handle this, and most of the time, our bodies do,” Chan says. But, when the demand on your heart peaks around 28 weeks, it can cause symptoms of underlying conditions to arise.
While swollen legs and shortness of breath are common symptoms of pregnancy, they weren’t “normal” for Walker, so she was right to bring them to her healthcare provider.
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But, according to Chan, those are symptoms that should always be brought to the attention of a healthcare provider — during pregnancy or not.
“Some symptoms of heart failure (include) not being able to lie flat when you were able to before, and having unexplained swollen ankles. Yes, they’re common when you’re pregnant, but the combination of symptoms is what we pay attention to,” Chan says.
“I usually tell my patients to trust their instincts and to talk to their friends and family and people who have been pregnant to see if it’s really within the realm of what they’ve experienced as normal.”