Heart to Heart
Heart to Heart

After surviving a rare coronary artery dissection and massive heart attack while nine months pregnant, Nefertari has devoted her life to uplifting other heart patients and promoting heart health awareness.

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The Whole Story

It was Sunday, June 8th, 2008, and I was nine months into my fifth pregnancy. I was relaxing at home, watching some television, when it happened.

As I rolled over to get up, I felt a pain stronger than I had ever felt before. This was my fifth pregnancy, and I knew this sudden sensation definitely was not labor. It felt like a piano or an elephant was sitting on my chest, and I was struggling to take just one breath of air. The next thing I can recall from that day was my husband getting me to the car and rushing me to the hospital. When I arrived the nurses quickly took me back to labor and delivery.

The doctors were puzzled. I obviously wasn't in labor, but they were unable to diagnose my problem and I was left to sit in a hospital room for hours without care. Even though I was given strong medication to deal with the pain, I was still struggling to breathe.

The next morning, a doctor who introduced himself as a cardiologist visited me. To this day, this man is one of my heroes. He said he thought he knew what was going on and that he had ordered a helicopter to take me to the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania (I was in southern New Jersey). When I arrived, I had dozens of doctors and nurses coming in to visit  "the woman who actually survived a coronary artery dissection." My coronary artery had broken completely in half, and while I was left untreated the bottom front of my heart died. It was an actual heart attack. I was experiencing cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart) and the dead heart muscle was forming an aneurysm that could rupture at any moment. I was a walking time bomb. All this, and I was still nine months pregnant.

The next thing I knew was in the critical care unit with hundreds of tubes and doctors surrounding me. I looked up and one of the doctors said, "You are a very sick lady. You are alive but we need to decide if we are going to spare you or your baby. You and your husband have to make a decision."

I refused to decide. I could feel my baby moving and thumping around, just as her four older siblings had done. I knew I had four children at home who needed me, but how could I just spare myself and not give this new beautiful life a chance?

During one of my daily visits from the crews of doctors who wanted to examine "the sickest woman in the hospital," I looked to my right to see a petite, blue-eyed blonde storm into the room as though she had been trying to reach me for days. She announced right then and there that she would not be losing me nor my baby — not on her watch. She introduced herself as Dr. Michal Elovitz, an attending physician in Maternal Fetal Medicine. I looked up with tears in my eyes and said,"I don't know where you came from or who you are, but I know because you are here everything is going to be all right." She caressed my face and ordered everyone out of my room, making demands for accommodations so that she could be at the hospital until the baby was delivered.

The week went on. I had several visitors. My husband sat by my side. I had the world's best nurses. I received hugs, kisses, and encouragement daily. It was Saturday, June 14, my mother's birthday. She had suffered a massive stroke four years earlier and was unable to be with me due to her own disability. My coworkers were visiting when I felt a cramping at the bottom of my belly. 

The next thing I knew I was surrounded by at least fifteen doctors and nurses. I had been placed in a glass room with collapsible walls for just this reason — a quick and easy trip to the operating room. When I opened my eyes I saw those familiar blue eyes staring at me. Dr. Elovitz was standing over me, wearing a sweat shirt and jeans, her hair in a sloppy ponytail. I smiled at her. "Yes, I have been sleeping here waiting for this moment," she said. "I knew it was going to be today." I had told her it was my mother's birthday. We arrived in the operating room and they set me up for delivery. Dr. Elovitz had never delivered a baby vaginally in that operating room. We were praying that today would be the first.

As I lay in the operating room, I was given blood and IV fluids in almost every part of my arm. I was instructed not to push. At that point I was 10 centimeters dilated (the point when the baby should descend) and nothing was happening. Because I had been given so much blood, my heart began to shut down and my lungs filled up with fluid. It felt like when you are swimming and you accidentally get water in your nose. I was drowning in my own fluids. Not under Dr. Elovitz's watch. I heard her yell something and the next thing I knew, I could breathe again. She asked what kind of music I liked. I said, "Jazz, but I also love club music." "Club music it is," she said, and ordered the staff (of maybe 30 people) to play club music. "Neffie, you promised me a baby," she said. I was told at that moment I said "you got it." I bore down and a few moments later, Dr. Elovitz vacuumed out a beautiful baby girl. She ordered the anesthesiologist to give me something for the pain but she made me open my eyes to identify my baby. She brought her close to my face."You did it," she whispered. Barely alive, in a weak voice, I said, "We did it."

The rest of the night was rough, to say the least. I couldn't see my baby — she was in the NCU, safe and warm with the best nurses in the world. I was the one who was in critical condition. I had two critical care nurses sitting two inches from my side. They told me that the next 24 hours were crucial. My buzzers beeped and alarms went off. The nurses did their jobs and I was right back each time.

As soon as I was strong enoughit must have been about 12 hours laterI demanded to see my baby. My nurses made it happen, and what a moment it was. She looked just like my baby picture. She had a tiny IV in her arm and a blood pressure cuff on the other arm. She was so content lying there in her own private incubator. I wept thinking about all that she had been through.

Days went by and we both got stronger and healthier. Although I did have a minor setback with a bout of pneumonia I was still able to bring my baby home a week later. Our journey was just beginning. I was going home to five children and a failing heart. To repair the dissection doctors had to place three stents in my coronary artery, which required me to take blood thinners and about nine other pills on a daily basis. The blood thinners require constant monitoring, especially in the beginning, so I had to travel to Philly every two days with five children, hardly able to walk. It was tough, but I was happy to be alive so I was happy to do it.

I found out later that my heart wasn't functioning as effectively as my doctors would have hoped, so I was admitted back into the hospital to have a defibrillator placed in my chest. This is a device that shocks the heart back into rhythm should it stop or beat too fast. I maintained a positive attitude. I was thankful that such technology existed and my doctors and nurses gave me the unofficial title of the most positive patient ever!

I live today as a disabled person. Although at one point my ejection fraction (a scale that doctors use to measure heart function) was only 17 percent (normal ejection fraction is 50 to 70 percent), it is now up to 35 percent.  My condition is still critical, but this is an improvement.

I enjoy my life. Don't get me wrong —it is a constant battle fighting depression and anger, but I find myself being thankful for every single moment. I no longer see life as a constant struggle but as an opportunity to make a difference. I know how it feels to be at the brink of death and I am able to tell other heart patients that no matter how bad things may look now, it will get better. I tell them to trust in whatever higher power they believe in and to accept that the future is not in their control. What shall be, will be, so enjoy the present. Life is even more precious once you've almost lost it.

I can now laugh, shop (with assistance), drive, and I am almost able to do 45 seconds of the dance to "Single Ladies" by Beyonce! I have learned to appreciate my medicine and value my doctors. I view the tests and appointments as opportunities to learn more about my condition so I can share with others. I try to remain positive and I smile when I look at my defibrillator scar. Not only do I think about how awesome it is that such technology exists, but it's also a reminder of how lucky I am to live in a county that allows someone like me, a middle class mother of five, to receive such wonderful medical care.

It is just an amazing thought, and one that I don't take for granted.

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Tags: Pregnancy , Rare Coronary Artery Dissection , Accepting the New Me

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About the Author

After surviving a heart attack, Nefertari has devoted her life to promoting heart health awareness.

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