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STORIES FROM THE HEART: Pregnancy masked her heart failure; now she helps warn others about heart disease

Published: 10:02 am CDT, February 6, 2014

When Jill Russell started feeling chest pains late in her pregnancy, her doctor offered a simple explanation. It was probably just anxiety over the arrival of her daughter.

Relax, she was told.

Jill figured that made sense. After all, before becoming pregnant, she was the epitome of good health – at 29, she’d always been active and had no family history of heart disease or high blood pressure. Her pregnancy had been relatively symptom-free, too, except for some recent swelling.

Sure enough, the pressure subsided after a few hours. Yet Jill spent the final two weeks of her pregnancy feeling very uncomfortable. The swelling was worse, especially in her legs and feet, and they hurt. Her delivery turned problematic, too. While her daughter was fine, Jill hemorrhaged and needed additional intravenous fluids.

Jill actually was having heart failure. But nobody knew it yet.

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Her first morning home from the hospital, Jill awoke abruptly, struggling for air.

“It was like trying to breathe through a straw,” she said.

She saw a doctor the next day. Again, she was told it was probably anxiety. She also received medication for a cough she was developing.

That night, Jill felt incredibly weak, but unable to lie down. She spent the night alternating between being propped up in a chair and rifling through the discharge papers from the hospital in search of an explanation for her discomfort.

“I was just desperate,” she said. “I felt like I was drowning.”

The next day, she called her doctor. Because her cough was worse, too, the doctor feared she had developed a blood clot and sent her to the emergency room.

When the hospital staff checked her oxygen levels, they were rattled.

A chest X-ray showed her heart was enlarged. That led to an echocardiogram, which showed that her ejection fraction rate – a key measure in determining how well your heart is pumping – was at 15 percent, well below the target zone of 55 to 70 percent.

Finally, the source of her problems was discovered.

***

A diuretic helped, quickly taking 30 pounds of fluid from her.

“I felt better almost immediately,” she said.

Still, confusion reigned as doctors tried grasping the extent of her condition. They even mentioned that a heart transplant might be needed.

“It was so much harder to take because I just had the baby and I couldn’t see her while I was in the hospital,” said Jill, who kept a photo of her newborn, Reagan, close by.

Jill’s heart slowly recovered. A month later, she had ejection fraction of 40 percent, then climbing to 50 percent and eventually into the normal range. It’s been eight years, and annual echocardiograms have shown that she’s remained in that range.

***

Doctors aren’t sure why Jill’s heart failed. An angiogramshowed no structural problems, so they suspect that she contracted a virus while she was pregnant.

Jill following a triathlon, with her husband Matt and daughter Reagan

She’s taken good care of it ever since.

Jill began her recovery on a strict reduced-sodium diet, something she and her family still follow. She resumed exercising about six months after her ordeal. Once her endurance improved, her doctor gave her the OK to start running.

In 2010, exactly five years to the day after she was in the hospital, Jill participated in her first triathlon wearing all red in honor of the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women campaign.  She has since participated on AHA teams for both the Chicago Marathon and the Chicago Triathlon.

Today, Jill is a member of the Go Red For Women ambassador committee and meets quarterly to talk about how to raise awareness in the Chicago area. She has also met with local representatives of Go Red For Women partner Macy’s to share her story and talk about why the partnership is important, and volunteers to speak at other heart-related events in the area.

She’s learned that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, claiming more lives than all forms of cancer combined. She also knows the American Heart Association is leading the fight by funding more research than any organization outside the federal government.

Jill’s experience has driven her to raise money for heart research and to raise awareness about how to stay healthy and recognize cardiac symptoms during pregnancy. Unfortunately, she’s been advised not to have any more children.

“It’s extremely difficult, but you just have to anchor yourself with the fact that you’re alive,” she said. “You want to recover and feel normal again and that prayer was answered.”

She feels very lucky to have her health and the love and support of her daughter, Reagan, and husband Matt.

“The important thing for me,” Jill said, “is that she’s aware of why we cook and eat healthy and stay active.”

***

Photos courtesy of Jill Russell

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Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell? 

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

Grieving mom works to prevent parents from learning of a child’s heart problem from a coroner

Social worker worried about her health, not her healthcare coverage

‘Courageous Katherine’ thrives on helping fellow heart patients

  • Jennifer Blum

    sounds like peripartum cardiomyopathy!