In September 2017, Shirley Polk was a healthy, avid endurance cyclist who rode an average of 50 miles per week – and also happened to be nine months pregnant with her second child. Fast forward less than three years later, thanks to WakeMed’s experienced Labor & Delivery and Heart & Vascular teams – Shirley is alive and well today to share her story of a very surprising delivery.
It was the day before Shirley’s scheduled c-section when she started having contractions. She headed to the WakeMed Raleigh Campus a day early for a simple and uneventful delivery of her perfect son, Joseph. Two days after delivery, while Shirley was recovering, her care team noted her blood pressure was a little high. Her obstetrician from Kamm McKenzie OBGYN asked if they’d mind staying an extra night just to keep an eye on things.
Shirley agreed to stay and continued to welcome visits from her entire family until 7 pm that night. Surrounded by her husband, mom, dad, daughter and niece, Shirley started to feel a hot flush come over her entire body and had trouble breathing.
While Shirley had never suffered a panic attack, she was certain that was what she was experiencing so she paged the nurse. The nurse promptly came in to check her out and immediately brought the full care team into the room. The last thing Shirley remembers is thinking “I’m going to die in front of my entire family.” Fortunately for everyone involved, that’s not what happened next.
From Delivering a Baby to Sudden Cardiac Arrest
Shirley had suffered not one, but two sudden cardiac arrests. A sudden cardiac arrest occurs when your heart suddenly stops beating. This can be caused by a wide range of heart problems – from rhythm or electrical problems, heart attack or other circumstances. In Shirley’s case, the cause was peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM) – a very rare condition that causes weakening of the heart muscle during the perinatal period (the weeks leading up to and just after delivery).
It’s so rare that it only impacts an estimated 1,000 – 1,300 women each year in the United States.
After restarting her heart, Shirley’s treatment was a whirlwind as she went from post-partum patient to heart patient in a matter of seconds. The WakeMed Heart & Vascular team placed an Impella heart pump to perform the cardiac functions her heart was too weak to do on its own. At this point, her heart was barely working.
Heart function is measured by an indicator known as ejection fraction, which typically ranges from 55 to 70 percent in healthy adults.
Shirley’s was hovering between 3 and 5 percent. Her care team determined that she’d likely need a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) or a new heart altogether, and they prepared Shirley and her family for a transfer to Duke – with a potential stay of around six months for a transplant.
Preparing for the Next Level of Treatment
By the time Shirley arrived at Duke, her kidneys had started to fail so she was put into a medically-induced coma. They removed her heart pump to prepare her for the next level of treatment, which was expected to be an LVAD placement. An LVAD is a mechanical heart pump that is often used while a patient waits for a heart transplant.
What happened next Shirley describes as nothing short of a miracle. Her heart suddenly started pumping on its own and her ejection fraction rose to 35 percent.
After four days, they decided she didn’t need an LVAD after all and kept her on close watch for several weeks to make sure her heart continued to recover. After less than three weeks, Shirley was sent home with a healthy heart to reunite with her sweet baby boy.
Enrolling in WakeMed’s Cardiac Rehab Program
Since then, Shirley has been closely watched by the WakeMed Heart & Vascular team for chronic heart failure – which is a tough diagnosis for a 44-year old, but certainly manageable as the alternative would have been a heart transplant. She was promptly enrolled in WakeMed’s Cardiac Rehab program, which she says changed her life.
“After this crazy incident that came out of literally nowhere, I was terrified to do anything,” Shirley explains. “I never thought I’d cycle again – I was even scared to walk too fast. The cardiac rehab team provided me with an encouraging personal trainer, dietitian, nurse, physical therapist – not to mention the incredible support I received from my fellow participants.”
Shirley completed the program at the end of March 2018 and credits much of her recovery to cardiac rehab’s supportive environment.
“I was probably the youngest participant by 20+ years and I went into the whole thing so depressed about what the rest of my life would be like. The program lifted my spirits, built my strength and endurance, and gave me a tribe of people to help me get through it all,” Shirley concludes.
Back on the Bike Again
After “graduating” from cardiac rehab, Shirley got back on her bike. By September of 2018, she had already completed a 30-mile bike ride – alongside her husband who decided to take up cycling with her. Shirley’s son, Joseph, is now nearing age three and she continues to train by riding 50 miles a week. In her spare time, she’s running an Instagram group called “Cardiac Moms” to encourage women to take control of their heart health – and Shirley enjoys talking to other PPCM survivors and encouraging them through their recovery.
“I am so thankful for WakeMed and the Kamm McKenzie team – for without their prompt response, I wouldn’t be here with my family today. While I thought I was simply having an anxiety attack, my nurse knew exactly what was happening – and thanks to the sound advice of my obstetrician, I was still in great hands at WakeMed. My son is almost three years old now and I’m so happy to be here with him and the rest of my family.”
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