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When Stacy-Ann Walker was pregnant at 29 with her daughter, she experienced heart failure. Since then, Walker, now 37, has become outspoken about heart disease and its impact on women as an American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women “Real Woman” volunteer. The business consultant based in Hartford, Connecticut, and mom to now 7-year-old Ashley shared her story with TODAY.
During the last month of my pregnancy, I struggled to sleep if I were flat on my back. I knew that women often felt uncomfortable resting during the late stages of pregnancy and when I shared this symptom with my midwife, she agreed it was normal. I also told her about feeling winded from walking up and down the stairs and pointed to my hugely swollen legs and ankles. But again, these seemed as if they are just part of being pregnant.
But when my blood pressure spiked, I visited my obstetrician. I normally had low blood pressure and it had been steadily increasing throughout the pregnancy. They were worried I had preeclampsia and sent me to the directly to the hospital for tests.
There, doctors measured my stomach and realized it was too small: My daughter was the size of a 30-week baby even though I was 35 weeks pregnant. A stress test showed she had a weakened heart rate. Doctors performed an emergency cesarean section and delivered Ashley, who weighed 2 pounds 12 ounces. Doctors whisked her to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) as I recovered.
But that night, I struggled to breathe. Nurses treated me with a nebulizer but I didn’t improve. Tests revealed I was in heart failure and there was fluid in my lungs. I was stunned. I was healthy and active my entire life. I wasn’t even 30 yet. How could this be happening?
Doctors discovered I had something called rheumatic heart disease, which happens after a bout with rheumatic fever permanently damages a heart valve. I have no recollection of having rheumatic fever as a child growing up in Jamaica, though rheumatic heart disease is more common in developing nations.
I spent a week in the hospital and Ashely spent two weeks in the NICU. I followed up with a cardiologist who wanted to observe me for a year before open-heart surgery to repair the valve. The doctor theorized that being pregnant caused extra stress and heart failure. A year later, it still hadn’t resolved and my values were leaking and my heart had become enlarged. Doctors repaired the valve in 2012.
Two years later, the leaking returned and in May 2016 doctors replaced my valve again.
It's important to me to share my story to help other women. I had no idea that I could be healthy, but still have heart disease and heart failure. I hope that other women hear my story and take control of their health.
I didn’t know that my seemingly normal pregnancy symptoms were also a sign I was in heart failure. Had I known, I think I would have pushed my doctors harder to treat me sooner. That’s why I want women to be aware of the risk factors for heart disease so that they can speak up and get screened. To understand your risk of heart disease it is important to know:
- Total cholesterol
- HDL cholesterol (the good one)
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar levels
- Body mass index or BMI
February, which is American Heart Month, is the perfect time to learn more about your heart health.
Ashely and I are both doing well, though I will be on medication for the rest of my life and have to maintain my healthy eating and exercise habits. This experience has shown me how strong and positive I am and reinforced that I can overcome anything.