At age 31, Erica Hoyle woke up to severe chest pain, alerted one of her roommates, then lost consciousness. She woke up a day later in the intensive care unit and found out that she had suffered a heart attack caused by a clot in her left anterior descending (LAD) artery.
Erica was lucky to be alive. This type of heart attack is known as a widowmaker because many people who suffer it do not survive. That scary experience would be the first of many complicated, frustrating, but ultimately joyous steps on her path to motherhood. Erica shares her story below.
'No doctors would take me as a patient'
After my heart attack in 2014, I lived in perpetual fear that I would have another. The doctors said an arrhythmia had caused a clot to enter my artery. They told me not to get pregnant right away, which was disappointing (I wanted kids eventually) but not a pressing concern because I was single at the time.
Not long after, I met and married my husband. In 2017, we moved to Texas and decided to start a family. We got pregnant right away. But, to our shock, no doctor would take me as a patient. Every office we went to said I was too high risk and they weren’t comfortable treating me.
My husband and I were devastated. Had we been wrong in getting pregnant? What would happen to me and our baby? Then we connected with Shivani Patel, M.D., and A. Thomas Hyslop, M.D., at UT Southwestern, and our sadness turned to excitement. They were the only doctors who would help me have my baby.
Dr. Patel reviewed my medical history and spent time getting to know my husband and me. She thoroughly explained the risks, but she was positive and upbeat. Dr. Patel assured us the high-risk pregnancy team and their heart team colleagues would be there for us every step of the way. If felt pretty awesome to walk out of that visit with her after all the difficulties we’d faced to that point.
As my pregnancy progressed, I had regular stress tests and echocardiograms to make sure my heart was functioning properly. I also had several blood tests to check my clotting. I saw my cardiologist monthly at first, then every two weeks as we approached my delivery date.
The cardiologists, the high-risk pregnancy team, my husband, and I decided we were all more comfortable with a planned cesarean section (C-section) than a vaginal delivery. That way, I could protect my heart further by avoiding pushing and straining. I was a little nervous about bleeding during the C-section because of my history of taking blood thinners. However, the doctors answered all our questions and made us feel comfortable about the procedure.
We scheduled the C-section for a week prior to my due date. On Feb. 4, baby David was born. It was the best day of our lives to date and truly a beautiful thing from beginning to end, thanks to the team at UT Southwestern.
What women should know
Erica’s case was unusual because of the type of heart attack she had, and being just 31 when it happened. But the UT Southwestern heart failure team and high-risk pregnancy team have the benefit of working on the same campus, which allows for close collaboration in patient care. We have the cumulative expertise to navigate complex pregnancies like Erica’s, and we were confident about taking her on as our patient.
That said, maternal heart health is a hot topic today. Cardiovascular disease is one of the top five causes of death in pregnant women. Women with a personal history of heart disease should use effective contraception, particularly if they have been told by a doctor that pregnancy might be unsafe.
Women with a family history of heart disease should be evaluated for heart-related conditions, ideally before becoming pregnant. If a heart issue is discovered, women who want to have a baby should visit a high-risk pregnancy expert and a cardiologist for an advanced evaluation.
Healthy moms and healthy babies are our top priorities. The joy of contributing to wonderful outcomes like Erica’s keeps us advocating and caring every day for women with complex pregnancies.