Heart to Heart

In Do, February 2021 by Lauren Kruchten2 Comments

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The beat on a rare women’s heart condition that could save your life.

The night after Shirley Polk’s C-section at WakeMed, Nov. 7, 2017, she started having trouble breathing due to what she thought was a panic attack. Within 30 minutes of paging a nurse, Polk’s lungs had collapsed twice and her ejection fraction (EF)—the measurement of the percentage of blood leaving your heart each time it contracts (55% is normal)—had dropped to just 3%. She was immediately rushed to Duke University Hospital.

At Duke, Polk—an avid cyclist and the marketing manager of CORE Fitness Studio (founded by husband JoJo, who also teaches there)—was diagnosed with postpartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM), an uncommon form of heart failure that typically occurs during the last trimester of pregnancy or post giving birth. After placement of a pump to help Polk’s heart beat and seven days of a medically induced coma, her doctors went back in to remove the pump that was now causing her kidneys to fail—and realized her heart was starting to work on its own.

By Thanksgiving Eve, Polk was cleared to return home with meds, a heart-healthy diet and a cardiac rehab regimen. And by February 2018, her heart was functioning like normal. Polk says that if her doctor had allowed her to go home after giving birth to son Joseph, she most likely would’ve died. “She saved my life,” Polk affirms.

PPCM is commonly misdiagnosed or goes undiagnosed because its symptoms are similar to those experienced during pregnancy—weight gain, trouble breathing, high blood pressure—and, thus, many women’s symptoms are often dismissed. “The biggest complaint of a lot of pregnant women is that their doctors overlook them,” says Polk. To combat that tendency, she urges that “especially when pregnant, women need to take charge of their health. If you don’t think something is right, insist on being checked out and finding a doctor that listens to you.”

Shirley Polk and friend, Lindsey Thomas

Now, Polk and her friend Lindsay Thomas—who was diagnosed with PPCM two years prior to Polk—are on a mission to raise awareness of PPCM and heart disease in women. The pair founded the Instagram support group Cardiac Moms (@cardiacmoms) after Polk’s diagnosis and have organized a virtual walk, run and cycle race for Feb. 5 through 15. Through their efforts, the duo has been nominated for the American Heart Association’s Women of Impact 2021 Go Red for Women Campaign. All funds from the race benefit the AHA.

Polk hopes that the Cardiac Moms Race inspires women who have suffered from PPCM to get back out there and do what they love again. “I want to tell people that [your life] isn’t over and [PPCM] doesn’t define who you are,” Polk says. “You just have to live your life with different rules.” runsignup.com/race/nc/raleigh/cardiacmoms

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