First-time mom survives pregnancy-related heart failure

Michelle Fauber with her 1-year-old daughter, Andrea

Michelle Fauber with her 1-year-old daughter, Andrea

As she brought new life into the world, an Indiana woman fought for her own survival

Michelle Fauber was on a ventilator the first time she held her newborn daughter—a powerful image that exemplifies the fragility of life. Just a few days before that tender moment, Michelle and her husband noticed signs that something was wrong.

In January 2013, Michelle was preparing to give birth to the couple’s first child. The Faubers, married since 2008, spent the past few years trying to have children. Finally, their family dream was on the brink of coming true and their baby-on-the-way was healthy. But Michelle noticed that she had gained an alarming thirty pounds of weight within three weeks. She also began to experience severe pelvic pain and could barely catch her breath.

“I was so exhausted that I couldn’t walk,” said Michelle, a 24-year-old from Gosport, Indiana. “I felt like I was going to die.”

The ultimate stress test

The couple rushed to a nearby hospital where doctors discovered Michelle was battling symptoms of congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and preeclampsia—all of which hit her suddenly and simultaneously. Once stabilized, she was transferred to Indiana University Health in Indianapolis, which has special expertise in handling complex heart problems and high-risk pregnancies.

During labor, Michelle experienced a “code blue” medical emergency and was unresponsive for about 10 minutes. Medical teams were able to revive and prepare her for delivery. After nearly 24 hours of labor, Michelle gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Andrea on January 9, 2013. But due to her own health concerns and a rapid heart rate, Michelle had to be taken to another hospital unit to undergo numerous examinations to test her breathing and heart function.

Doctors diagnosed Michelle with peripartum cardiomyopathy—a rare disorder associated with the late stages of pregnancy in which heart muscle weakens, leading to symptoms of heart failure. The condition can be difficult to identify because symptoms of heart failure can closely resemble those of pregnancy.

“A pregnancy is like the ultimate stress test for a woman’s heart,” said Dr. Adnan Malik, a cardiologist with the IU Health Cardiovascular Center at Methodist Hospital. “If a woman has any predisposition that might result in heart failure, it can come out during pregnancy or afterwards. Fortunately, as a referral center for the most complicated cases, we have expertise in treating such conditions.”

Fighting to survive

Over the next few days, newborn Andrea was able to go home with other family members, but her mother could not leave with her. Instead, Michelle had to be put on a ventilator in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit where medical teams performed numerous tests in an effort to help her breathe on her own.

Within a few weeks, Michelle was able to leave the hospital and spend time at home with her new family as she managed her heart failure symptoms with medications. But that came to a halt in March of 2013, when she passed out unresponsive in her bathroom at home. Her husband called 9-1-1 and they were returned to IU Health Methodist Hospital.

IU Health cardiovascular experts explained to Michelle that she had only a 50/50 chance of surviving the rest of the year, unless she received support for her weakened heart. Fortunately, a treatment option existed.

A lifesaving technology

Doctors talked to the couple about the Thoratec HeartMate II—a mechanical device designed to help the heart’s ventricles pump blood throughout the body. More than 80 percent of patients implanted with the device become virtually free of heart failure symptoms within several months, regain energy and remain stable for a few years.

The couple agreed to the surgery and Michelle was implanted with the ventricular-assist device in April 2013. The device is connected to her heart and powered by a controller that she carries in an over-the-shoulder bag, like a purse. Thanks to the device, Michelle began to notice an almost immediate improvement in her strength and energy levels—to the point she could finally hold and rock her new baby girl.

Fast forward

More than a year later, Michelle is extremely grateful to be able to watch their little girl grow up, chase her around the house and see another Mother’s Day. If all continues to go well and Michelle’s heart fully recovers, doctors say there’s a good chance they can remove the implant and allow her heart to pump blood on its own.

“I would go through all of this again just to be able to hold my little angel,” said Michelle. “It’s all been worthwhile. Truly, a blessing from God.”

Michelle and her husband, Darren, want to offer hope to others in their situation and encourage parents to pay close attention to key signs and symptoms during pregnancy which may include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Shortness of breath

They also stress the importance of knowing one’s family history when it comes to heart problems.

The IU Health Cardiovascular Center is home to Indiana’s only nationally ranked cardiovascular program and an Advanced Heart Care Clinic that specializes in treating the most complex heart conditions. Learn more here

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