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You Don’t Expect Heart Disease When You’re Expecting

Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Corshu

“It’s all in your head,” is what’s 30-year-old Elizabeth Corshu’s doctor told her when she complained of shortness of breath, chest tightness and excessive weight gain during the last four weeks of her pregnancy.

“I felt like I was breathing through a straw and walking five feet felt like running a marathon,” recalls Corshu.

But it wasn’t in her head, it was in her heart. A week after giving birth to twin boys, Corshu was rushed to the emergency room, where she was diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy and told her prognosis was very poor and ”not compatible to life.”

Heart disease during pregnancy

Corshu’s story is not uncommon. There are many women who experience cardiac events during pregnancy or shortly thereafter. The number of women who have heart attacks while pregnant, giving birth or during the two months following birth is increasing. According to a study from the New York University School of Medicine, the risk for suffering a heart attack among pregnant women rose 25 percent from 2002 to 2014.

Cardiologist and member of WomenHeart’s Scientific Advisory Council Stacey E. Rosen, MD says pregnant women with heart disease can be divided into two categories. One is women who have a heart condition before they become pregnant, such as congenital heart disease, abnormal heart rhythms and prior heart attack. The second includes women like Corshu with no previous heart conditions, who develop forms of heart disease during pregnancy.

“Peripartum cardiomyopathy is a rare condition which causes severe heart failure in the last trimester of pregnancy or in the first few months after delivery. The exact cause is not known but those with multiple gestations and African-Americans are at higher risk,” said Rosen. “Unfortunately, symptoms of a heart attack, as well as heart failure, can be confused with symptoms women experience during pregnancy, such as chest and abdominal discomfort, breathlessness, ankle swelling and fatigue.”

Life after diagnosis

A trauma intensive care unit nurse recognized Corshu’s heart disease symptoms nearly a month before she received her diagnosis, but it was dismissed by her doctor. After learning she had heart disease, she remembers feeling frustrated, anxious and depressed. She says her faith helped in her recovery and empowered her to become a warrior against the heart disease diagnosis.

Corshu became a WomenHeart Champion last October and now educates women in her community about their number one killer. Her sons are happy and healthy 15-year-olds who love all sports and are members of their high school fencing team.

Barbara Tombros, Board Chair, WomenHeart, [email protected]

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