In early June, Malisa joined a friend at the movies. At 38 weeks pregnant, Malisa often felt uncomfortable. Especially when the temperatures regularly reached 100 degrees. But when the 37-year-old felt a chest pain, like someone was sitting on it, she skipped the movie and went to the emergency room.
“I have never been pregnant before and I found out that being pregnant a lot of people don’t tell you all the symptoms,” Malisa told TODAY. “I was scared by the fact the fact that I couldn’t breathe.”
Malisa visited her local hospital in Antelope Valley, which is north of Los Angeles, and doctors examined her. The baby was perfectly healthy, but Malisa had a heart murmur. They hydrated her with fluid and told her to follow up with a cardiologist.
“I can’t say I felt reassured,” she said. “I was still having a hard time breathing. For three days, I wasn’t able to lay down flat or sleep on my side.”
Malisa asked TODAY not to use her last name because her husband, Josh, a master sergeant, is deployed with the U.S. Air Force in South Korea.
More than a week later, Malisa visited a cardiologist. When the doctor heard her murmur, he felt concerned. While pregnant women often develop heart murmurs, Malisa’s sounded severe. The doctor asked her to return the next morning for tests. That’s when an echocardiogram confirmed his suspicions — Malisa had an aortic dissection.
“Usually when it happens you are basically dead,” she said.
She’s not exaggerating. About 50 percent of people with aortic dissection die instantly, said Dr. Richard Shemin, a cardiac surgeon at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, who performed Malisa’s surgery. He’s impressed by Malisa.
“The miracle is she lasted long enough to have the diagnosis made,” said Shemin. “She is really quite lucky.”
Aortic dissection occurs when the inner layer of aorta, the main artery in the human body originating in the heart, sustains a tear and the blood seeps between the tissue, causing the aorta to separate. This can lead to an aortic aneurysm, which is often what causes death. People with high blood pressure or diseases that affect connective tissue are at higher risk for them. While Malisa was born with a heart murmur, it corrected itself and she had no other risk factors.
After the diagnosis, a helicopter flew her to Los Angeles on June 13. At the same time, Josh was asleep in South Korea, unaware that anything was wrong. Someone woke him at 5:30 a.m. to tell him to call home and he realized he missed tons of calls.
“My heart jumped in my throat,” he said.
He made a video call to Malisa and saw her being wheeled to the helicopter.
“She is completely calm and relaxed with her sunglasses on, taking selfies with the helicopter crew,” he said.
While this comforted him, he still had a 10-hour flight from Seoul to Los Angeles. During that time, doctors were delivering the baby via emergency cesarean section and then performing open-heart surgery.
When Malisa first learned of the plan, she asked if they could wait for her husband. The doctors balked.
“They just stared at me,” she said. “That answered my question.”
The urgency meant that she needed to be prepped for surgery while she was awake prior to the C-section. The obstetrician had about a minute to get the baby out before the anesthesia affected him.
“This is a very rare case,” said Dr. Carla Janzen, who delivered baby Connor. “We were very very fortunate that the baby was doing so well.”
After Connor was born, the cardiac surgeons started open-heart surgery, which lasted about six hours. This is only the second time Shemin performed this procedure; the first time was in 1983.
“He had experience,” Malisa said. But she wondered, “Can he remember what he did in 1983?”
Shemin successfully removed the aneurysm and ruptured aortic tissue and replaced her aortic valve with a mechanical one. When Josh arrived, Malisa was in recovery.
“He comes running into the room and gives me a kiss,” she said. “As soon as we were able we were escorted down to the nursery.”
Together they saw Connor — who was 6 pounds, 3 ounces, and 19 inches long — for the first time.
Recovery will last 45 days and Josh hopes he can stay home to help. The couple want others to learn from Malisa’s experience.
“Listen to your body,” she said. “You need to make sure you’re taking care of you.”