Alicia Petry: An Amazing Story of Survival

As a heart survivor, Alicia Petry has become a valued spokeswoman for the American Heart Association’s West Virginia team. Here is her story in time for American Heart Month.

Alicia Petry and her family today.

Everything was kind of fuzzy. I didn’t recognize the room or any one that was in my sight at that moment. I was confused, but the memory of my pregnant belly came to my mind and I tried to move my arms down to my stomach. I struggled, but once they reached it, panic took over my body. It was flat. Where is my belly? Where is my child? What is wrong with me? Why can’t I move? What is this thing in my neck? Finally I noticed the sweet angelic face of my mom, who was looking down at her phone. “Mom!” She couldn’t hear me, why? “Mom!” Still couldn’t hear me. By now I was figuring out I had a tracheostomy and when I would try to talk it would just sound like a big gush of air.  “ANGIE!!” That got her attention. She immediately stood up and fought the machines to get to my bedside, “Yeah, I’m Angie, I’m your mom! I’m your mom!” I kind of shook my head and dismissed the fact that she was for some reason reminding me that she was my mother. “Where is my baby!”

At a young age I was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation and Tachycardia. I had a few episodes of syncope and would have to have medicine adjustments but, otherwise, I lived a very normal and healthy life. I was always active, always doing something, and working every chance I got. I worked at the Charleston Area Medical Center Memorial ER as a phlebotomist and absolutely loved, and ROCKED, my job. I would speed walk around the whole place, soaking up all the knowledge of the interesting cases that came though those doors and making sure the patient was okay even though I was only required to collect the blood samples. But that is me. Having kids was something I knew I always wanted. Once that time came, I was overfilled with joy. I could not wait to be a mommy. I would sit in my little lab cubby hole in the ER and take all the ultrasound machines and watch my little baby when I had downtime, which everyone got a kick out of. I think when my pregnancy started kind of giving me problems was when I could no longer take one of the heart medications I was previously prescribed. Reason being, it would cause harm to the baby and from day 1 I was against that. From that point on my heart rate was always 170-180. The crazy thing was, I was so used to it that it didn’t bother me. You could see my carotid artery thumping so hard, and even then, that didn’t slow me down. I would zoom around that ER with my little bump like nothing could stop me, until it did.

November 16, 2012.  That was a day that should have been filled with joy, pictures, mommy snuggles, and all-around happiness. Instead, that day was complete with fear, heartbreak, and a whole lot of tears.

I woke up that morning and it was all I could do to just move. I vomited multiple times, was so unbelievably short of breath, and my heart was racing. My mom happed to be gone so, luckily, I had a phone next to the bed. I called her and explained to her that I absolutely had to go to the hospital because something was wrong. This wasn’t like all the times when I just needed a medication adjustment, this was something completely different. I stood up and made it to the shower and I just had to sit down. It was taking every ounce of my strength to just stand there. I began to wash my hair and as I raised my arms up to get the shampoo lathered in my hair, they just fell back down. I couldn’t do it! I couldn’t even bathe myself. At that exact moment I closed my eyes and cried to God. “Take me, please don’t take my baby.”  I heard someone walking through the house. My mom, being the worrier that she is, had called my papaw and my neighbor to come check on me and sit with me until she had gotten there. I looked up at her and told her I couldn’t get the shampoo out of my hair and I just felt so helpless. She of course jumped right in there and took control. She lifted me up (I still to this day I don’t know where she got her strength from, she is a tiny little thing!), put me on the bed and dressed me, and rubbed my belly to try to relieve pressure from my diaphragm, and somehow got me to the living room where my papaw was sitting there will a face full of worry.  It was very soon that my mom arrived at the house and got me loaded in my car and off to the hospital we went.

Alicia with the team at Charleston Area Medical Center who helped her when she went into cardiac arrest.

As I sat in the passenger seat of my car at Women’s and Children’s Hospital everything was starting to get blurry. The door opens, a man standing there with a wheelchair, “How far along are you? Are you having difficulty breathing?” That was it. That is all I remember. Everything went black. I got into the hospital and my OBGYN, Stephen Bush, came down and noticed right away this wasn’t labor, this was something much worse. He sent for my electrophysiologist, Ronald McCowan, who rushed over as soon as he heard. I made it to the table and the nurses was trying to tell me it was okay and they were going to put me to sleep and do a C-section and to just relax. I said my last words, “I can’t breathe”, and then my heart stopped. In the waiting room, my mom heard over the intercom “Code Blue” and she felt a pain in the pit of her stomach. She knew it was me, it was her mother’s intuition. About that time Dr. McCowan turned the corner and my mom ran up to him and grabbed his hands and with tears in her eyes and fear in her voice she asked, “Are you going to help my baby?”  He looked at her in shock, and then he ran into the OR where I was and started working on me. I went in and out of cardiac arrest several times, all the while Dr. Bush was delivering the baby, which he says to this day was the fasted C-section he has ever done. I was stabilized and rushed to Memorial Hospital while the baby stayed at Women’s to be evaluated because he was early and obviously just went through a traumatic event.  Once I got there, they prepped my family for the worst because I had been down so many times and my heart was only working at five percent.  Then, God sent a miracle. Dr. Steve Lewis had heard about what had happened and stepped in and put me on a heart and lung machine and health netted me to Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. My dad decided to stay with the baby in Charleston and keep my mom updated while she was with me in Ohio.

Once I got to Cleveland and my family got there, they decided to wake me up so my family could tell me goodbye. I remember so vividly everyone was crying, but they kept telling me that the baby was okay and that they had to fix my heart.  I couldn’t ask questions because I had the breathing tube down my throat, so I just shook my head yes and then I was put back to sleep. A few weeks later I was put on a heart machine called a LVAD, a left ventricular assist device. This would allow my heart to rest while I waited for a heart transplant. My kidneys were not working, so I was also receiving dialysis until I could get a kidney transplant as well.  Weeks went by and my progress just kind of stayed the same, that was until that very day when I opened my eyes and realized I was no longer pregnant. I was scared, but everyone kept telling me, “He is fine! He is at the guest house with your stepdad.” Was he really okay though? I needed to see for myself. The nurse rushed over the bed and told my mom to have the baby brought in so I could calm down. My mom made the phone call and my stepdad literally ran to that hospital. My mom picked him up out of his carrier and brought him closer.  The entire ICU stood around my bed crying and clapping as they watched me also cry and say over and over, “I’m a mommy, Mom! I’m a mommy!” It was at that moment that I started to fight harder. I fought with every ounce in my body, for that baby needed his mommy and I was not going to fail. My blood work started improving, I was staying more awake, and my heart was getting a tiny bit better. In fact, I fought and prayed so hard that on the night of Christmas Eve, my kidneys started working! This girl was on fire! Very soon after that I was moved to a step-down unit, and then from there to physical therapy where I gave it my all to learn to walk and stand up again. It was a miracle.

Alicia finally gets to hold her son after her incredible ordeal. 

Two years later I received my heart transplant and was back stronger than ever. It was a rough two years. I had little bumps along the way with my LVAD machine and a few little things with my heart, but I made it. I was blessed to have met and developed a great relationship with my donor’s mom and learned so much about my donor. Winter Shook, who was 18, made it possible for me to complete my heart journey and be a mother to this beautiful baby boy like I always wanted. There is not a second of the day that doesn’t pass that she isn’t on my mind. I will never take her, or her family for granted. She changed my life; she changed the ending to my story. Because of her, I have survived 6 more years. Six years to watch my son, Easton, grow, teach him how to ride a bike, take his first little girlfriend to the elementary school dance, play his first baseball game, and score his first goal in soccer. Six years to meet and marry the love of my life and inherit two stepsons. Six years to realize that my dreams that I once thought were over and unreachable, are in fact reachable. Six years to see the world and see that the possibilities are endless.

I see you, God. I see you, and I hear you.