This week we’re featuring a guest post by Meredith, a member of the American Heart Association team, about her incredible story of survival. 

One of my first memories was of seeing my mother in the hospital hooked up to multiple tubes and wires. When I was five years old, she had an aortic dissection and was in the hospital for quite a long time; in fact it took her months to get back to normal. I was young and confused, and I remember trying to touch the multiple tubes connected to her, and she said, “Don’t touch that!”

Developing an aortic dissection was the “Big Bad Wolf” in our family because it had affected so many people, including my grandfather, great grandfather, and a great aunt. Despite this, Mom wouldn’t talk about it. When we spoke to cardiologists they didn’t know of any prevention plans, which meant I was most likely a ticking time bomb. It’s impossible to put something like that out of your mind.

Fast forward to me being an adult, and I started getting interested in genetic testing to find out my risk factor for the aortic dissection; yet the tests couldn’t pinpoint the gene we had that caused it. Over time my sisters and I continued to tell cardiologists about our family history, but no one could ever find anything. So we lived our lives.

When my husband and I started trying for a baby, we were sure to tell the OBGYN about my family history, so they performed echocardiograms just in case. My sister had two kids without incident, so we knew pregnancy was possible.

That all changed on August 29, 2018 when I developed a really bad headache. At the time I was on bed rest for high blood pressure, so I thought the symptoms were related. The next morning I woke up with really bad pains in my chest and back; at the time I thought it could be heartburn. Despite this thought, I had a feeling that something was really wrong, so I woke up my husband. He said I should try walking around to see if that helped, but instead it caused my right leg to go numb. That was when we decided to go to labor and delivery.

Once there, the chart nurse told me back pain is not normal with labor. I told the nurse about my family history of aortic dissection which greatly concerned her, so they sent me to get a CT scan. At this point I was in so much pain that I was throwing up, and two ER nurses were trying to calm me down. When they tried to do bloodwork and insert an IV they couldn’t find a vein, which was another red flag that something was seriously wrong. During the contrasting CT it hurt so bad, it was the hardest 90 seconds of my life!

When my OBGYN came she confirmed that I was experiencing an aortic dissection and decided it was time to perform an emergency C-section. I started panicking. A Care Flight was called to fly me to Dallas, and then the chaplain came to visit me. She asked me and my husband, “What do you need to say to each other? Whatever you need to say, say it now. We don’t know how this will turn out.” We had only been married for three years and were now faced with a possible life-changing emergency. We learned that my baby (Geoffrey) only had a 20% chance of surviving, and I only had 40% chance. The odds were not good, but I was going to fight.

I was brought to the Care Flight, and couldn’t hear anyone or see anyone but the back of the pilot; however, I remember a woman on the flight who held my hand and comforted me. She was an angel and I kept telling her I don’t want to die. The Big Bad Wolf my family had feared for so long had come to life. When we landed at the hospital, five people were waiting outside of the OR. The Anesthesiologist, Dr. Russell, held my hand and said “We’re going to do everything in our power to save you both.” There were 29 people in that room, and all of the doctors and nurses introduced themselves. The heart surgeon, Dr. Pool, offered to pray with me, then I remember telling the room, “You have to save me and my baby because I have to take care of him.” That was the last thing I remember; I was ready to go to battle for both my life and my baby’s.

Meanwhile, my husband was being driven to Dallas from Plano, and he was met by top administrators who took to him and my family to their own waiting room. Geoffrey was born in three minutes, blue, but began breathing on his own very quickly. While I was still under, they sewed up my uterus from the C-section, but not abdomen in order to start heart bypass surgery to repair the aortic dissection.

When I woke up in the ICU I saw husband and OBGYN but didn’t fully recall much; I was still intubated and couldn’t speak. My baby was born early, so I kept trying to ask how big he was and whether or not he was okay. I bawled when I first saw him. I learned my husband was with him most of the time. By the next day I was out of ICU, and working on healing. There were some stumbles along the way, including needing fluid drained from my lungs and having low oxygen levels. I only wanted to spend time with my family, because what I didn’t realize at the time was that I was experiencing severe emotional trauma as well. In fact, when I came home and had a panic attack. One of my doctors told me that, “Emotional health and rehab is just as important as physical rehab.”

Before all of this, I had been working for the American Heart Association. One of the reasons I decided to work with this remarkable organization was because I knew that the aortic heart valve that my mom received was funded by the AHA’s research and development work. I knew my condition was generation and that perhaps the AHA might save my life one day too.

I’ve spent the last few months focusing on healing physically through cardiac rehab, and healing emotionally through counseling. Life is getting back to normal. On January 8, 2019, I went back to work at my job at the AHA doing half days to start, but moving to full days soon. And my baby Geoffrey is doing very well! He’s sleeping through the night and just started on baby food. My aorta is now made out of fabric called dacron and it looks kind of like a Chinese finger trap. I gets regular CT scans to see how my heart is doing, and I work to keep my blood pressure under control. Overall, my journey is now one of healing and recovery, and continuing to work with the people who helped save both my life and Geoffrey’s.

To read the doctors’ compelling account of Meredith’s story, click here