In 2010, I was young, healthy, enjoying a hectic and exciting life in my adopted hometown of Los Angeles. When in late winter I discovered I was pregnant, I was elated: by year’s end, I’d be adapting to California life with a newborn — my son.
But the pregnancy soon proved difficult. Instead of the ease with which a healthy 28-year-old woman expects to sail through maternity, I found myself crippled by excruciating headaches. At the obstetrician’s office, I was told I was simply experiencing “pregnancy migraines,” a common side effect of fluctuating hormones, and told to reduce my stress levels.
By my fifth month, the symptoms worsened. One night my left leg went strangely limp, aching and useless. By morning, I couldn’t walk on it at all. I phoned an ambulance; in the emergency room, doctors told me the pain and numbness was caused by the baby being pressed against my sciatic nerve. The hospital sent me home, where I continued to decline: in addition to the pain and inability to walk, I would wake through the night quaking with tremors, teeth chattering through the warm Los Angeles summer. By now, I had become a weekly visitor in the ER; it was my first pregnancy and I didn’t know what to expect, but the doctors were as perplexed as I was by my condition.
It was July when I decided I was going home. Columbia, South Carolina, is a long way from the West Coast, but the pregnancy had exhausted me physically and emotionally; “going home to mama” — where I’d be endlessly cared for — felt like the safest decision, both for me and my unborn son.
But in Columbia, my condition grew even more perilous. One morning, I inexplicably woke up in a hospital room, confused, surrounded by my family. My sister explained to me that I had been in the hospital for 30 days… and that my son, Liam, had been born two weeks earlier. The story was incomprehensible. I only learned all that happened to Liam and me after the fact.
A month earlier, my mother had discovered me in bed one afternoon in the throes of a massive seizure, and dialed 911. In the hospital, doctors discerned that I had already undergone two strokes while in California — strokes that mimicked the symptoms of pregnancy. The “pregnancy migraines” were actually bleeding on the brain, and the reason my head had ached excruciatingly. Losing the use of my left leg hadn’t been a pinched sciatic nerve but a second symptom of stroke, and by the time I moved to Columbia, I’d lost the use of most of my left side. By the time I was admitted to the hospital, doctors also determined I was going into heart failure; thinking it was related to the pregnancy, they cycled me in and out of comas to induce labor and enable me to give birth. Liam was delivered a month early, slight at just four pounds but in miraculously good health.
Nonetheless, my condition continued to spiral. Doctors soon pinpointed the problem: endocarditis, an infection of the heart. While working to treat it, they also discovered an enormous roadblock: a destroyed mitral valve. My heart function was perilously low; an “ejection fraction” measures the amount of blood the heart pumps, and mine was operating at just 10 percent. The doctors closed me up; my body was preparing to die.
While I was quickly placed on the heart transplant list, I wouldn’t have lived long enough to receive one. Remarkably, my surgeon had had a conversation in passing just days before about a new heart device — a tiny implant that mimics the pumping motion of the heart while allowing the heart to repair itself and return to full function. He had never tried it, but at that point, we were out of options; my family signed off on the procedure and the device manufacturers quickly flew to South Carolina to train in its insertion and use. My ejection fracture needed full assistance, and when the implant was removed a week later, my heart was healthy and whole. After a month in the hospital, I awoke.
Initially, the circumstances of my medical condition coupled with the birth of my son were overwhelming. The seizure had also complicated things: my memory was blurred, as though the previous two years had been erased. It would be a slow road to recovery: days in and out of rehab facilities re-learning to feed myself and to walk. After two weeks of their around-the-clock care, my family returned to work and their own families, and I was left to care for myself and a newborn alone.
Liam and I made it, and today we’re thriving. Still, as a woman of color, learning after my experience about the devastating statistics on our maternal mortality was also sobering. While I’m grateful to have received a diagnosis and world-class treatment, I also wonder why those came so late and at such an enormous cost. At the same time, just the nature of being pregnant meant I was regularly seen and taken seriously by medical personnel who were there to help; if my pregnancy was the cause of my strokes, seizure and heart failure, it was also the blessing that ensured I’d receive help.
Today, I spread the word about my story to help others. A number of common pregnancy symptoms can disguise far more serious complications: some mimic heart failure, or look like migraines or loss of appetite — all the symptoms of a typical healthy pregnancy. As horrible as my experience was, it’s something I wouldn’t trade: I’m thankful I’m alive and have my son, and so grateful to be able to bring awareness to expectant women.
—By Iman Dorty