In March of 1997, Beth Williamson Ayers gave birth to her son, Owen. Healthy and happy after a smooth pregnancy and delivery, Beth returned home with her son and visiting family members. Five days later, however, while spending time with her sister, Beth began experiencing shortness of breath. Immediately, her sister called Beth’s OB-GYN to explain the situation. The doctor reassured Beth, attributing the breathing difficulties to seasonal allergies, while also directing her to monitor her breathing and call again if it worsened. After ending the call, it quickly became clear the shortness of breath was more severe than allergies. Beth’s sister called the doctor again, and at 9pm that night, they all met at the emergency room.
By the time Beth arrived at the hospital, her condition had evolved from shortness of breath to full on heart failure. Her ejection fraction, or the amount of blood being pumped with each heart contraction, was only 10%, well below the average range of 50-70%. With this near fatal reading, Beth was immediately admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and put on the heart transplant list.
After running echocardiogram (echo) tests and monitoring her throughout the night, the medical staff determined Beth had experienced Post Partum Cardiomyopathy (PPCM), a rare form of heart failure that can occur during the last month of pregnancy or up to five months after giving birth. In the United States, about 1,000 to 1,300 women develop the condition each year. In Beth’s case, doctors are unsure why she experienced PPCM, however, they believe it could have derived from a dormant virus activated during birth.
Throughout the night, a full medical team attended to Beth as her heart was barely pumping enough blood to keep her alive. With her heart enlarged and blood flow and distribution abnormal, Beth’s lungs filled with fluid, causing suffocation. The doctors were able to drain the fluids and stabilize Beth overnight, and when she woke up the next morning in the Cardiac Care Unit, her heart had, miraculously, began responding on its own.
After monitoring and ensuring her heart was strong enough, Beth was removed from the heart transplant list 48 hours later. With no surgeries needed, Beth spent the next 12 days in the hospital recovering, learning about the medications she would need to continue to take, and building back her strength.
Reflecting on this time, Beth said, “After 22 years, I am still grateful every single day. My doctor stayed with me through the night and because of exceptional medical care, I made it through that critical time. I am thankful for those doctors, nurses and other clinical staff who worked with me that night and gave me the chance to recover. I couldn’t imagine not being here to raise my son!”
After 12 days in the hospital, Beth was anxious to get home and back to her newborn. So, on Easter Day, Beth was ecstatic when she was discharged and returned home to continue her recovery journey.
When asked about her recovery, Beth stated, “Over the first year, I made solid progress with my recovery. I gained more strength every month and I was able to start doing some activities with the baby. It took a long time to return to a more active life. Without a doubt, I had to prioritize all activities and accept the fact that I was not going to return to the same heart function as before, but there was a way to enjoy life. I had to accept my “new normal” and I started each day with gratitude. I still wake up every day with appreciation for a “second chance” at life.”
As a business owner at the time, Beth was thankful for her staff who continued business as usual and for her family and friends for their endless support while she was recovering.
During her recovery, Beth also began mentoring other mothers who had recently experienced PPCM. For Beth, these relationships helped her cope with her own experiences and for her mentees, these relationships provided hope for their own recoveries.
“Mentors are wonderful when you are trying to recover and you need encouragement or advice”, stated Beth.
Today, 22 years later, Beth’s heart continues to work at two-thirds capacity, with an ejection fraction of 35-40%. With daily medications, a healthy lifestyle and yearly echo tests, however, Beth continues to live her life to the fullest.
“They [doctors] told me not to climb mountains, and I have. They told me not to ride motorcycles, and I have. I have continued to persist and am determined to be a part of life, not to stay on the sidelines in life”, stated Beth.
Recently, in her 14th year working at Virginia Commonwealth University, Beth was awarded ‘Faculty of the Year’ by the MHA Class of 2020. Along with this accomplishment, Beth is proud to have raised her son, who is now a pre-med senior at Princeton, while living with her heart condition.
“The two of us have been a great team all these years and each year that goes by, I enjoy being a great part of his life and future career. Realizing that we reached these goals together is a great milestone, especially after I became a single mother when Owen was three years old. I like to celebrate them, knowing that I was blessed to have the opportunity to not only recover, but embrace the life that I was fortunate to be able to enjoy.”
Finally, Beth offers advice relating to heart health. “I would suggest that anyone seek as much information in order to understand more about heart disease. If you are the patient, find the best medical care and do your part to improve your lifestyle and be as healthy as possible. If you aren’t the patient, but have been impacted by someone who has heart disease, learn as much as you can in order to support them. Be available, listen and try to understand what they are experiencing. Being a sympathetic friend is so important.”
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The American Heart Association, Richmond is working with local partners to improve access to and consumption of healthy foods, catalyze efforts to improve social determinants of health and improve access to and quality of primary care in Greater Richmond. We are grateful for our volunteers and supporters who are a relentless force for longer, healthier lives for everyone in the Richmond area. Keeping hearts beating is what keeps our hearts pumping.