Courtesy Stacy Ann Walker
Out of breath. Swollen ankles. Stacey-Ann Walker, 37, had these symptoms and more, but she wasn’t too concerned. She was in the third trimester of her pregnancy, after all.
“I was feeling really tired, especially when I tried to go up and down the stairs,” Walker remembers. “But my midwife said that all pregnant women feel that way.” What she didn’t realize is that her discomfort was due to her damaged heart—and it was putting both her and her baby in extreme danger.
Walker endured her symptoms until her next prenatal exam. That’s when she learned the baby wasn’t growing and Walker’s blood pressure was climbing. “At that point, the baby’s size became the main focus, so they sent me to the hospital to see a neonatal specialist,” Walker recalls. At the hospital, doctors discovered that the baby’s heart rate was far below normal. Walker was rushed into an emergency C-section where her daughter was delivered weighing only two pounds.
Her daughter went to the NICU for care and Walker was taken to labor and delivery to recover from surgery. That’s when her “pregnancy” symptoms—especially the trouble breathing—returned. Her doctors put her through heart tests that revealed she had what’s known as acquired heart valve disease; her heart had probably been damaged by an undiagnosed case of rheumatic fever, according to her doctors. There was fluid in her lungs and her heart was enlarged.
They put Walker on an oral diuretic to try and drain the fluid from her lungs. “It wasn’t strong enough,” she says. Later that evening she went into full respiratory distress. “I called the nurse three times from my room; all I could get out was, ‘I can’t breathe.’ The room filled with people and they started me on a large dose of the diuretic intravenously. Only then did I feel relief and like I could breathe again.”
The hospital transferred Walker to the cardiac unit. Hooked up to monitors and an oxygen tank, she was unable to see her newborn daughter for two days. “Emotionally, that was the most difficult,” she says. “I had just had this baby and I wasn’t able to go see her. My family was just going back and forth between the two of us.”
A cardiologist confirmed that two of Walker’s four heart valves—the mitral and aortic—were leaking. Her pregnancy had placed too much strain on her heart, worsening her symptoms. “I was just so thankful I was in the hospital when things got bad. If I had been home, the outcome would have been different.”
A week later, when Walker was discharged from the hospital, her cardiologist suggested she stay on medication and wait a year before considering surgery to repair her valves. “He wanted to see if the pregnancy was what pushed my heart over the edge, or if the valves would continue to leak.” She also had to watch for the sneaky heart attack symptoms women ignore.
At her one year checkup, she learned that her valves had continued to leak, so her cardiologist scheduled her for heart surgery. Walker says the operation and recovery were extremely difficult with an infant at home—lifting and carrying her daughter was nearly impossible. Four years later, she was shocked to learn the repair surgery didn’t hold. “I had no symptoms, so when my cardiologist said the valves were leaking again, I was in complete shock.”
This time, Walker underwent a mitral valve replacement. Though she needs to take medication for the rest of her life, she has returned to her active lifestyle. She also sees a cardiologist every six months to monitor her valves. Some of the screens she undergoes are among the 11 tests for heart disease you never knew you needed.
Today, Walker’s daughter is a thriving eight year old, and Walker is a volunteer for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement. “I encourage women to take action for their health: move more, make heart-healthy food choices, and know your numbers,” she says. “Most women don’t know that one in three women will die of heart disease. They need to be as informed as possible.” You can protect yourself by learning the 15 heart attack prevention tips every woman should know.