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Making Every Heartbeat Count

09716_WOMC_Winter15_Final.inddMelanie Baldwin considers herself a “walking, talking research and development project 50 years in the making.” Born with a congenital heart defect – still the leading cause of death in children – Melanie says she is “a product of determination, good fortune, and amazing technology.”

“I was born with a hole in my heart and a defective aortic valve, and I have had five open heart surgeries through the years,” says Melanie. “I am currently on my fourth pacemaker.”

Melanie had two surgeries while she was still a young child then another when she turned 19 to replace a defective aortic valve with a mechanical one. The new valve was meant to last 15 years, but in exchange, she would have to take Coumadin to keep her blood thin. This arrangement worked well until she married and decided her life was not really complete without a child.

Almost 25 years ago, Melanie became pregnant, and after moving to San Diego, she went to check in with her new doctor. That doctor’s appointment turned into a month long hospital stay because she had developed a blood clot just outside of her heart; if it moved, both she and the baby were at risk of dying.

Although Melanie knew her pregnancy was considered high risk, she did not expect to be told that she would have to terminate her pregnancy in order to have surgery to remove the clot. While she was on complete bed rest, doctors spent a month trying to convince her that was the best option. She adamantly refused and insisted they do the surgery while she was pregnant, which they did, reluctantly. At 26 weeks pregnant, Melanie’s clot was removed and her mechanical valve was
replaced with a pig valve.

“Not only did I survive, so did my daughter,” says Melanie. “I gave birth to her in July 1990, and I have never regretted my decision. Cardiovascular disease is a family affair. It affects everyone you know and love.”

Melanie’s mom, Carol Payne, agrees. “Ours has been a normal life for the most part, interspersed with moments of horror, heart-wrenching sorrow, and desperation,” says Carol. “But there were also euphoric moments when Melanie’s amazing positive spirit and tenacity helped overcome what should have been life-ending events.”

Melanie suffered cardiac arrest in June 2013 and spent 10 days in the hospital. She walked out of the hospital, but the  incident put her in line for an AICD (automatic implanted cardioverter-defibrillator) to replace her third pacemaker. An AICD  differs from a pacemaker in that its defibrillator has the ability to shock the heart out of a life-threatening heart rhythm abnormality. “Luckily, Melanie was resuscitated by her husband when she had her cardiac arrest,” says Dhiraj Narula, M.D.,  FACC, a board certified cardiac electrophysiologist. “We changed her pacemaker to a pacemaker-AICD combination to protect her in the event she had another cardiac arrest.” The procedure was done at the end of August 2013, and she spent another five days at Dignity Health – St. Rose Dominican’s Siena Campus.

February is American Heart Month, a nationwide initiative to raise awareness in the effort to combat heart disease and educate communities on prevention and treatment options.

Melanie, her mom, and her daughter are sharing their stories at the American Heart Association’s Go Red Luncheon on Friday, Feb. 27. “Our family has obviously learned a lot about cardiovascular disease over the years,” says Melanie. “My  mom is my hero. She’s been right beside me every step of the way, as has my daughter who has accompanied me through my cardiac ‘journey’ and is now a registered diagnostic cardiac sonographer.”

“You can’t control what challenges life throws your way, but you can control how you choose to deal with those challenges,” says the upbeat, ever joyful, Melanie.

A Mother’s View

09716_WOMC_Winter15_Final.indd“My daughter is the hero,” says Carol. “When Melanie was born, my doctor told me there was a problem, so I was amazed that there was nothing visibly wrong, and this has really been true all of her life. Melanie has never looked sick, and she has always had a happy, positive disposition.

When Melanie was 3 years old, we went to the hospital for her first surgery. It was supposed to be the only surgery she would need … the one that would fix whatever was wrong, but after the surgery, we learned that doctors had found other problems with her heart.”

At 7, while living in San Diego, further surgery was recommended to open Melanie’s aortic valve. “She was comforting me as she went into surgery,” says Carol, “telling me that she would be fine and I wasn’t to cry.” At 19, Melanie was told she needed further surgery, this time to replace the aortic valve. She was told the night before surgery that the surgeon would be using a mechanical valve, so she would need to take blood thinners, which meant having children was not an option. “We had always felt tremendous gratitude that technology and medicine could save Melanie’s life,” says Carol, “but now the quality of her life would change. She was devastated.”

Melanie later married, and Carol was not surprised when she decided to have a child against all odds. “She had survived a ruptured appendix and cardiac arrest shortly after her surgery at 19, so when she said she could handle pregnancy while taking blood thinners, I believed her. The result is our beautiful Kate.”

A Daughter’s Perspective

As an ultrasound technician, Kate Eggington works with people who have heart problems every day. “I chose this career partially because of my mother,” says Kate and Melanie, with friend Ronrico Hawkins, at the AHA’s annual Heart Walk in 2014. Kate. “But it wasn’t until I completed my schooling that I realized how serious her condition is. I almost wish I could go back to my days of ignorance because knowing the full depth and consequences of what she was born with is scary.”

09716_WOMC_Winter15_Final.inddEven knowing about her mother’s heart condition, it wasn’t until June 15, 2013, that Kate was forced to accept that “my mother wasn’t as invincible as she seemed and that I could lose her at any point without any notice.”

Kate’s parents were having a normal day at home. “Luckily, my stepfather happened to be home for one of the 10 weeks of the year he doesn’t travel,” she says. That afternoon, Kate’s mother’s heart stopped without any warning. She collapsed and went into cardiac arrest. For the next two days, she was put into a coma and therapeutic hypothermia was used (her body temperature was lowered) to slow her metabolism, decrease the amount of oxygen she needed, and prevent brain damage.

“None of us could function. I couldn’t eat, I could barely sleep, I was inconsolable,” says Kate. “During the times I could actually bring myself to sit by her bed, I couldn’t call her mom because the sound of my voice made her reach out, trying to pull at the IV and breathing tube she had in. On the third day, they slowly warmed her back up, and when they took her out of sedation and she spoke, my stepfather broke down. We hadn’t lost her. After 10 days in the hospital she finally came home to us.”

“Although that was the most terrifying experience of my life,” says Kate. “I now cherish my mother … every lunch with her, every hug, every time she says I love you.” Heart disease kills more women each year and is more deadly than all forms of cancer. Melanie is a true advocate for raising awareness of the threat of heart disease – she’s been actively involved with the American Heart Association for 15 years. Arm yourself with information. To learn the facts about heart disease and what you can do to prevent it, visit goredforwomen.org. For more information about cardiac services provided at St. Rose Dominican or to find a St. Rose cardiologist, visit strosehospitals.org/heart.

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