When 26-year-old Elisha Bowers noticed she had gained 10 pounds during her last week of pregnancy, the Salt Lake City medical assistant knew something was wrong.
"(Ten pounds) was one-third of what I had gained my whole pregnancy," Bowers told ksl.com.
Prior to that, Bowers, who was carrying her third child, noticed she was having trouble breathing, and that her hands and feet had swelled.
It wasn’t until after she gave birth that she really knew something was really off— for the first time, she couldn’t walk up the stairs in her home. When she went back to the doctor, an echocardiogram revealed the truth: Bowers’ heart was failing.
Doctors discovered that Bowers had been suffering from peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM). PPCM is a rare disease that causes a pregnant woman’s heart to become enlarged, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The condition can occur between the last month of pregnancy until five months after the baby is born.
"I couldn't believe it,” she told ksl.com. “I went from a healthy mother of two to having my third child and ending up with heart failure at 26.”
Researchers aren’t sure what causes PPCM, but they believe the stress put on a woman’s body during pregnancy, as well as the up to 50 percent increase of blood volume, may be contributors to the condition. According to the NIH, during PPCM, the heart becomes weak and can’t pump blood well. There is no cure for the disease.
PPCM did not impact Bowers’ baby, but Bowers continues to live with the condition every day.
Every two months, Bowers gets an echogram from her cardiologist. She may need a pacemaker or a heart transplant, she said. Fifty percent of women recover normally, 30 percent continue to manage the disease throughout their lives, and 20 percent die.
"I know from personal experience that women need to be watched more closely, not just during pregnancy, but until they are out of the danger zone of six months,” Bowers told ksl.com. “I know that doctors should all be informed about how dangerous this situation is because it should be prevented. A mother should be able to enjoy having her baby, not holding on to dear life to see her children grow up."
Risk factors for PPCM include obesity, a personal history or heart disorders, smoking, alcoholism, African-American descent and poor nourishment. Bowers did not have any of these risk factors.
Symptoms of PPCM include fatigue, racing heart palpitations, increased nighttime urination, shortness of breath, swelling of the ankles, and stomach or chest pain.