Nine months into my fifth pregnancy, I was relaxing at home, watching some television, when it happened.
As I rolled over to get up off my deep couch, I felt a pain stronger than I had ever felt before. Since this was my fifth pregnancy, I knew it wasn’t labor.
I rolled onto the floor, and the pain disappeared. I thought it was gone for good, so although I had called the doctor, I quickly called back and said I was fine and started back to my couch.
Suddenly, it hit.
It felt like a piano or an elephant sitting on my chest. I wanted nothing more than to remove it so I could get just one breath of air. The next thing I remember was my husband getting me to the car and rushing me to the hospital.
When I arrived, the nurses quickly got me back to labor and delivery. The doctors were puzzled. They were unable to diagnose my problem, and I was left to sit in a hospital room for hours. I felt every pain, and even though they gave me strong pain medication, it didn’t help with my inability to breathe.
The next morning, the man who walked in and introduced himself as a cardiologist is still, today, 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 of the University of Pennsylvania. (I was in southern New Jersey.)
The next thing I knew, I 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 siblings before her had done. I knew I had four children at home who needed me, but how could I spare my own life and not give this new beautiful life a chance?
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 a 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.
During one of my daily visits from the doctors who wanted to examine “the sickest woman in the hospital,” I looked to my right to see a petite, beautiful, blue-eyed blonde storm in as though she had been trying to reach my room for days, and she announced that she is not losing me nor this baby — not on her watch. She introduced herself as Dr. Michal Elovitz, an attending physician in maternal fetal medicine, and she came close to my face.
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 touched my face and ordered everyone out of my room, making demands for accommodations for her to be at the hospital until the baby was delivered.
As 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. On 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. They were working overtime to bring a smile to my face by telling inappropriate jokes, but they could see that I was in pain and informed my nurse.
Soon, I was surrounded by at least 15 doctors and nurses. I had been placed in a glass room with collapsible walls for this very reason — a quick and easy trip to the operating room. When I opened my eyes, I saw those same blue eyes staring at me. Her hair was in a ponytail and she had on a sweatshirt and jeans, and I was able to smile as I touched her sloppy hair.
She said, “I have been sleeping here waiting for this moment, and 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. She had never before delivered a baby vaginally in that operating room. We were praying that today would be the first.
As I lay there, I was being pumped with blood and an IV. 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. She yelled something, and the next thing I knew, I was breathing 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 she ordered the staff to play club music. Then she yelled, “Neffie, you promised me a baby.”
I was told that, at that moment, I said to her, “You got it,” and I bore down as she 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 and whispered, “You did it.”
Barely alive, in a weak voice, I said, “We did it.”
That was a rough night. I was unable to take the medicine that works for cramps, and I couldn’t see my baby. She was in the NICU, safe and warm with the best nurses in the world; I was in critical condition. When I looked to my left, I had a nurse sitting by my side, and when I looked to my right, the same. I was in such poor condition that 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 enough — it must have been about 12 hours later — I demanded to see my baby. They made it happen, and what a moment it was! She looked just like my baby picture. She had a tiny IV in one arm and a blood pressure cuff on the other. She was so content lying there in her own private incubator. I wept thinking about all that she went 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 daily. 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 they had hoped, so I was admitted back into the hospital so doctors could place a defibrillator in my chest — it shocks the heart back into rhythm should it stop or begin to beat too fast. Continuing with my positive attitude, I was thankful that such technology existed and was given the label by several doctors and nurses 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, which is still critical, but an improvement.
I enjoy my life. 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 “Single Ladies” dance. 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 that I live somewhere that allows someone like me, a middle-class mother of five, to receive such wonderful medical care. It is an amazing thought that I don’t take for granted.