Surviving Congestive Heart Failure during Pregnancy and Childbirth

Below is the story I contributed to MomQuery, an online support website for moms.

I became a mother at the very young age of 16.  At the age of 19 I had my second child, and three months after my 23rd birthday, my third son was born.  I was a young mother finding her way through parenting and maturity; and if you said that my children and I grew up together, you would be correct.

Those years resulted in many life lessons which I have dutifully scribbled on the pages of my diary, and the edges of my Bible; and while I am happy to share many of those lessons with you, as the mother of four “adult-ish” children, today I feel compelled to tell you about the time I came very close to dying.

Please bear with me, as it has been over fifteen years since this part of my story was forefront in my life and mind.  I may not remember some of the finer details; but I assure you, the event continues to resonate with me today.

An absolutely delightful day in my history book is the day we found out we were finally expecting something in pink.  My three boys had completely captured my heart, and I absolutely loved and adored every adventurous inch of them; however, my own girlish heart yearned for something in ruffles and bows. 

 I had all of my men around me when the ultrasound tech confirmed my suspicion.  We were finally in the PINK!  I wasted no time calling everyone in my circle of near and dear and was ready to begin sewing ruffles on everything and everyone in sight.

However, our delightful day was short lived.  The very next day we were to receive the results of a heart test I had recently undergone.  Due to some heart palpitations my doctor had ordered a heart monitor.  The heart monitor led to an ultrasound of the heart, and these results would tell us if the palpitations were any reason for concern. 

Honestly, I don’t remember even being overly concerned about my heart at the time.  I had felt palpitations various times throughout my life, and had assumed it was normal.  In addition, the doctor had informed me that palpitations were often common among pregnant women.

The fact that my father had passed at 40 of a heart attack may not have been registering with me at the moment.  I had my head in pink clouds and saw no reason for concern.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Congestive Heart Failure (CHF), it is a disease of the heart, which causes a decreased pumping ability.   Fluid retention, exhaustion, palpitations, and chest pain are often symptoms of the disease; and unfortunately it is not uncommon in pregnant women. 

Of course this does not mean that every woman with the above symptoms should worry about CHF; especially when fluid retention and exhaustion are trademarks of pregnancy.  However, palpitations and chest pain are symptoms that no one should ignore.

I remember exactly where I was standing when the doctor called with the results of my heart test.  Is bad news even real while you are doing dishes and watching the neighborhood kids riding their bikes up and down the street? 
I assure you, it is.

“Your heart is very sick, Christa.” 

I’ll never forget those words, or the sympathy that accompanied them.  According to my doctor, an average heart is generally capable of pumping out approximately 65% of the blood it takes in.  It seemed that my heart was working somewhere between 20 and 40%.

I cannot remember what I was thinking in response to the doctor’s news.  Neither do I remember much of what we said on the phone.  As a matter of fact, I remember little of that following weekend while we waited to see a specialist. 

However, I do remember the fear that gripped me.  It threatened to be my undoing before my heart even had the chance to fail me.  I remember a darkness that dropped over me making each step feel weighted.  I remember sitting at an ATM, thinking of impending death.  I remember thinking a lot about the future of my husband and children.

The following weeks proved to be a flurry of activity, combined with orders to rest non-stop.  I spent most of my time between visits with the specialist, and crashing on the couch while my boys watched cartoons.  My unborn baby girl was thriving in the womb, and my heart was working relentlessly to keep us both alive. 

In order to tend solely to my heart condition, the specialist offered to refer me for a late term abortion.  She informed us that we would have to cross state lines, due to the laws within our state; however, due to our beliefs, I kindly and respectfully declined her offer. 

I would never presume to imagine what a mother must go through when faced with terminating a pregnancy.  In our case, our unborn child was thriving; and the decision felt clear; however, my heart goes out to those who have not had such a clear cut path in similar situations.

Three and a half weeks before our little girl’s due date I had an appointment with the specialist.  She asked me to lie back for the ultrasound and I immediately began to have trouble breathing.  Without wasting any time she sent me straight to the hospital.  There was concern that my lungs were filling with fluid, and the decision was made to induce. 

 We knew that our little girl might spend some time in NICU; but that she had an excellent chance of survival.  On the other hand, we were potentially facing my last few days on the earth. 

The delivery room was full of doctors, nurses, and possibly a student or two.  I wore a heart monitor that sent constant readings to a lab downstairs, and special pants that kept my legs from developing blood clots.  Everyone in the room was prepared for the worst and after two pushes the doctor ripped open a set of forceps, planning to gently pull our daughter into the world so that I would no longer need to push.  

However, the moment the doctor opened the forceps, our little girl decided she was having none of it, and she practically fell out into the doctor’s hands. 

To this day our daughter has been one to do things her own way.  Her sense of independence and confidence continuously astounds me.  I’ll never forget how she quietly and soberly inspected the delivery room immediately following her birth.  It was as if she was completely aware of the importance of her birth and lacked any need for reassurance of any kind.  She simply took her father’s finger in her own tiny hand and looked at him.  

Unfortunately for her, the nurses were not satisfied with her calm, cool, and collected approach to the world, and insisted that she cry for her own good.  This upset her greatly and her frustrated cries set everyone in the room a little more at ease.  Daughter was fine.  Time to focus on Mom.

In the months that followed our girl’s birth, I was given no guarantee of life for any length of time; and I was doing my best to take it one day at a time.  Many medications and tests later, it was determined that I had undoubtedly had CHF for many years, and the pregnancy had only highlighted it. 

Today I take a minimum of four heart pills a day, and I struggle with fluid retention, palpitations, chest pain, and exhaustion.  As I write this, I am currently hooked up to a 30-day heart monitor so that we can make decisions regarding any med changes that may be necessary.

But I am alive. 

I am alive with a beautiful family.  I am alive with a teenage daughter who steals my hairbrush, and “borrows” my makeup, but still curls up with me at night to discuss boys. 

I am alive with three sons who were raised by their momma; and they dutifully kept me on my toes as a mom of boys.  Bonus - one of them has given me the most beautiful daughter-in-law and we are smitten with her.

I am alive with the man who stood by me through the medication adjustments which resulted in mood swings, weight gain, and other fun side effects. 

I am alive with frustrations and irritations.  Happy moments and sad.  Money problems, relationship issues, and too many activities on a Saturday night.

I have dishes in the sink, laundry on the couch, and too many pets.  I have school loans that didn't amount to a degree, dreams I have yet to realize, and questions about the future.

I am alive with a heart that not only pumps better than we ever thought it would, but one that has learned to be thankful for the messy existence we call life. 

I am learning not to take myself or others too seriously.  I am learning that seasons change. 

 And I am learning that sometimes it is really important to seize the day we have, because guarantees are often few and far between.


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