COLUMBIA CITY, Ind. (WANE) - Samantha Smith's life was humming along. She married her high school sweetheart in July 2010. Not long after, they were expecting their first child. But, in her third trimester, the 22-year-old knew something wasn't right.
"Around 32 to 34 weeks, I started putting on a lot of weight. I gained 25 to 30 pounds in the last couple of weeks. I started feeling sluggish, having trouble breathing, and was very tired," Smith said.
Her OBGYN told her what she was experiencing was just part of being pregnant.
"I felt this was not normal, but when a doctor says to 'suck it up,' you say, 'I'm being over-dramatic.' I thought I was being a drama queen," she said.
Smith tried to take it easy and kept pushing forward. She ended up having a Cesarean section and gave birth to baby Jackson on October 1, 2011.
"The day after he was born everything was amplified. I couldn't get out of bed and when I did, I had a really hard time breathing and walking," Smith said. "The doctor and nurses said it was because I had a C-section and I hadn't had surgery before."
Smith went home, but didn't get better.
"I ballooned up and gained a lot of weight," she said. "I kept calling my OB saying I can't breathe. She said I might have a cold and I should take over-the-counter medicines."
Then seven days after having her son, she woke up in the middle of the night.
"I was gasping for air. It felt like I was drowning and I said to my husband, 'I think I'm dying.' That's what it felt like," she said.
The next morning, and urgent care doctor told her to go to the emergency room. First, doctors there said she had pneumonia, but kept running tests. Finally, Smith got the right diagnosis.
"A doctor came in and said I was in congestive heart failure. There's a 25-50 percent mortality rate and a 50 percent chance I'd need a heart transplant. That's all I really heard," she said.
In the middle of a life-changing diagnosis, this young mom was doing what so many women do - thinking about other people.
"I was thinking that I don't have time to have heart failure. I have an eight-day old baby," she said. "I was worried about everyone else and how they'd manage if I weren't here anymore."
Peripartum cardiomyopathy is rare. It happens in about one in 3,000 pregnancies, according to Dr. Eric White, a cardiologist with Parkview Physicians Group.
"For some reason, the body attacks the heart in pregnancy and the heart muscle weakens. When the heart muscle weakens, it doesn't pump enough and when that happens, the lungs fill up with fluid," White explained.
When peripartum cardiomyopathy does happen, it's usually in older women with a multiple gestation pregnancy.
"It's difficult [to diagnose] because the symptoms of heart failure and the symptoms of pregnancy are very similar. Most people who complain about shortness of breath in pregnancy, it's just the pregnancy," he said.
There's no way to know why Smith developed the rare disorder.
"There's a lot of research into it. People think there may be a genetic predisposition to it, but right now, there's no testing to figure out why she had it," Dr. White said.
Medication helped Smith's swelling go down quickly. She said she lost 18 pounds of water weight in 36 hours. She's also lucky that she recovered without any permanent heart damage.
Now, a year later, Smith is getting back to her full strength. She's staying busy keeping up with a one-year-old and going to grad school. But, she also found herself in an unexpected role: women's heart health advocate.
"I can take something so negative and turn it into a positive," she said.
While Smith's condition was rare, heart attacks are still the number one cause of death in women. Women's symptoms aren't always obvious and are not like men's.
"Women need to be aware of that and seek attention early," Dr. White said. "It can be a headache, fatigue or dizziness."
Many women also tend to ignore symptoms to keep taking care of the rest of the family.
"It is okay to say I have to put my health first. That's something I've learned in the last year," Smith said.
She also wants women to know that they need to be assertive.
"When you feel something is wrong, you have to advocate for yourself. You're the expert on your body when something is wrong. If a doctor doesn't listen to you, get a new doctor," Smith said.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of heart disease and stroke can be the difference between life and death. To arm women with the knowledge to survive, the American Heart Association is hosing a Go Red for Women Luncheon and Symposium from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on November 15. Click here for more on the lunch.
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