Five days after giving birth, Melissa Dimmick felt worn out. She knew having a baby was exhausting, but this seemed like something different.
Hoping for relief, she visited a local clinic for an antibiotic to treat what she thought was a respiratory infection. But, this was no ordinary cold.
"There is something really wrong," the doctor said, according to the now 31-year-old Dimmick from Painted Post, New York.
She wasn't overly concerned and figured an antibiotic would help her. The doctor, however, thought Dimmick had a pulmonary embolism and urged her to go to the emergency room right away. She relented and went.
In the ER, doctors diagnosed her with a rare type of heart failure called postpartum cardiomyopathy, which occurs during the last month of pregnancy or up to five months after delivering a baby.
“I had never heard of this before," she said. "I would have never guessed that anything like this was going on."
That’s because some of the symptoms are similar to what women experience while pregnant, including labored breathing, struggling to breathe when lying down and difficulty walking without shortness of breath.
Though it can be hard for women to tell the difference, the severity and longevity of the signs set it apart.
“It’s much more pronounced symptoms and the symptoms don’t go away after you give birth,” Dr. Maya Barghash, a cardiologist at the Mount Sinai Hospital, told TODAY.
Dimmick, like so many young mothers, had no idea that she could even go into heart failure, especially at the age of 29. She was shocked. Although she was overweight, she didn’t notice any other signs and learned she had no genetic markers for the heart failure.
“I literally pulled the short end of the stick,” she said.
At 288 pounds, doctors worried Dimmick wouldn’t qualify for a heart transplant because her body mass index, or BMI, was above 35.
“My heart function was to the point where it was a possibility that a transplant was going to need to happen,” Dimmick said. “I needed to make better choices.”
From feeling down to kicking butt
When she was discharged from her local hospital with blood pressure medication and an external defibrillator, she felt hopeless.
“They told me if I was still alive in six months they would see me for a follow up,” she said. “I was devastated. How do you tell someone, ‘Your heart's not working, but it's no big deal. Just go home and try not to die?'”
Desperate not just to live, but to thrive, she visited Mount Sinai. At first, she wanted to know if she could have another baby. But, they balked at this.
“The doctor said, ‘No more babies ever. You're all done. You have to see our heart failure team,’” Dimmick said. “I didn't necessarily understand the extent of how bad my heart was.”
That’s when she met Barghash. The cardiologist implanted a wireless heart monitor in Dimmick to detect if she went into heart failure and a defibrillator to shock her heart if she started having “electrical complications."
“It is kind of like a seatbelt. If you were in a car you hope you’ll never need it,” Barghash said. “But if you do, it’s there to protect you.”
Months after her heart started improving in October 2018, Dimmick had bariatric surgery. Since then, she’s lost 86 pounds and learned more about nutrition.
“We worked very hard, like giving up fast food,” she said. “We’re eating a lot more fresh foods.”
This change has had a tremendous impact on her health.
“Weight loss was very important and helped her recover even more,” Barghash said.
Some days, Dimmick feels winded walking up the stairs, doing laundry or holding her son, Kale, now 2. And she feels a little embarrassed when she’s the youngest person in the cardiologist's office by decades. But, she relies on her sense of humor to stay optimistic, which has helped her heal.
“I have to laugh,” she said. “I'm like, ‘Yeah it's my bum ticker,’ just because I have to lighten the mood a little bit. It is a really serious condition, but lightening the mood makes it a little bit easier.”
She wants other people to feel empowered to take control of their health when they hear her story.
“I was given the choice: I could go home again and give up or I could kick butt and I decided to kick butt,” she said. “I have this human being I’m responsible for ... I’m going to be here for him.”